After decades of drought in the Sahel, several studies have reported a ‘(re)greening’ of the area. However, most of these studies were based on large scale climatological or remotely sensed observations, with little or no ground truthing. The aim of this study was to assess the local perceptions of the distribution of socio-economically important tree species in the Sub-Sahel of Burkina Faso. Semi-structured interviews were performed with 87 groups of informants from 20 villages belonging to three ethnic groups (Mossi, Fulani and Samo). Univariate and multivariate statistics were used to compare perceptions between the targeted ethnic groups. According to the locals, more than 80 per cent of the 90 listed species were declining, with over 40 per cent identified as threatened, including numerous plants of great economic value. Increasing species were mostly drought-tolerant plants such as Balanites aegyptiaca. A few species were listed as locally extinct. Gender and age did not significantly affect local knowledge, whereas ethnicity did. The major causes of species decline were identified to be drought, deforestation and bushfires. In all ethnic groups, informants observed a southward shift in species distribution. Local perceptions suggest a general decline in woody vegetation. Thus, the alleged (re)greening in the Sahel might not have reversed the degradation of woody species in the area. Data derived from local ecological knowledge were consistent with that of many ecological studies, suggesting the reliability of people's knowledge for obtaining ecological data. Information from this study can be used as baseline for conservation of species identified as threatened. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.