Mpingo Face Uncertain Future
Daily News, a Tanzania newspaper
June 29, 1999
by Charles Nzo Mmbaga

Wood-carving is an industry with uncertain future in East Africa. The high rates of exploitation of the tree which provide wood for carving has dramatically reduced the stock across the region. Now, several concerned organisations, one supported by BP Tanzania, are frantically trying to search for solutions, CHARLES NZO MMBAGA reports...

Mpingo, has been in demand for centuries. This valuable blackwood tree, botanically referred to as Dalbergia melanoxylon, is widely used in the wood carving industry and in musical instrument manufacture.

It is in fact the most highly valued traded timber in the world and is of cultural, ecological and economic significance where it grows. This is particularly true for Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, where the species is important at local, national and international scales.

Besides that, Mpingo is of ecological importance in the African savannah because the nitrogen fixing properties of its roots add nutrients to the generally deficient soil in the regions where it grows. It also provides fodder and habitat for animal species. The local population uses the tree for subsistence needs, for medicine, fuel, building and ceremonial purposes.

But something serious is going to happen to this tree: it is widely harvested and now faces commercial extinction in East Africa. And this is bad news. It is disastrous for American ornamental turners and Western classical music, as well as for local carvers who rely on it. The wonder tree is in trouble!

The continuing commercial harvesting, spreading desertification and increasing population pressure—associated with fires and livestock grazing—pose a serious threat to the African blackwood.

The case of mpingo, is a classic example of a species which although of local, national and international value and importance, is being largerly neglected in terms of conservation. Few people have long been concerned about the future survival of mpingo.

Despite its great importance there have been almost no efforts to monitor or conserve its use. There has, likewise, been not one single large scale effort to replant the tree by either its commercial users or conservationists. Very little is even known about mpingo — its range of distribution, its yearly use, its rate of extraction.

In East Africa there are some governmental efforts to try to limit harvesting by - among other things - imposing a license fee of TSh 120,000 per cubic metre of logs felled, and also a rudimentary means of recording usage but there is plenty of evidence of unrecorded extraction…in both gazetted, private and common lands.

In the mid-1980's the Tanzanian government, concerned about its diminishing stands of blackwood requested help from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1987 and 1988 UNEP sent missions to Tanzania but there has been no follow-up and the results of the mission were never published.

The combination of these facts imply that the trade and use of Dalbergia melanoxylon are not likely to stop, and without the implementation of carefully designed management plans the exploitation may continue until it is no longer economically viable, which may, unfortunately correspond with commercial extinction.

Several years ago, Mr. James Harris, an ornamental turner from Texas, U.S.A., founded a joint conservation project with Mr. Sebastian Chuwa, a botanist in Moshi, northern Tanzania.

Says Mr. Harris: "I would feel a tragic loss to no longer be able to use this wonderful wood and so I feel a responsibility to our own and future generations to see that the mpingo tree survives and thrives."

To address these issues and ensure mpingo tree survives, a number of international initiatives have been going on for years, the latest one involving a group supported by a local oil marketing company–The Cambridge Mpingo Project (renamed Mpingo Conservation Project in March 2004), which has spawned three expeditions: Tanzanian Mpingo 96, Tanzanian Mpingo 98 and Mpingo 99. It has been doing this with the support of BP Tanzania which is supplying fuel for the expedition team. It will conduct surveys at Mitarure Forest Reserve in Kilwa, Lindi Region.

It operates in close cooperation with and supported by Fauna and Flora International. Now they are preparing to launch a regional management plan to conserve mpingo based on sustainable exploitation.

Tanzanian Mpingo 98 was the second of three expeditions from the project thus far. All have been approved by Cambridge University, and have worked in collaboration with both the Botany Department at Dar Es Salaam University and the Forest Biology Department of the Sokoine University of Agriculture, in Morogoro region.

The project has also been approved and is being supported by the Royal Geographical Society.

Co-leader of the team, Mr. Steve Ball, says, " this year we conducted two surveys in Mitarure Forest Reserve close to Kilwa. Ball says they detected little difference in human impact in and outside the reserve which was not clearly marked. Local villagers were unaware of where the boundary lay, and there was as much burning in the heart of the reserve as there was in the public land outside it."

Their first expedition, which carried out its field work at Mchinga near Lindi, won a prize in the prestigious BP Conservation Awards Scheme.

The two surveys concentrated particularly on the effects of fire and shifting cultivation on regeneration. They will also investigated local attitudes towards the tree.

Now the third expedition is underway. Cambridge Mpingo, led by Lucinda Bevan of Cambridge University, will go to Nachingwea, in Southern Tanzania to look into the socio-economic context in which logging occurs. She says: "We will be there for approximately two months talking to villagers to find out how they value the tree in both economic and less quantifiable terms".

It takes an estimated 70 to 100 years for mpingo trees to reach timber size and this makes plantations unrealistic. So the trees must be conserved in the wild, says Ball.

He says a successful conservation strategy would also bring great benefits to the woodlands of Tanzania where mpingo grows.

There is currently very little data on the tree's ecology and exploitation. For, despite the importance of the tree it has been the subject of only limited research. "Without this sort of data it is impossible to plan a practical strategy for the species' conservation, hence our mission. We want to meet just this problem," he says.

The plight of mpingo came to the world's attention when it was featured in the 1992 BBC-produced documentary about the African blackwood tree, called "The Tree of Music", which was aired in the United States on the Public Broadcasting System television series, Nature.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Chuwa have collaborated to create a conservation project known as the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP).

The initial stage of this project envisioned a one-acre plot, donated by a village in Moshi, filled with seedling of mpingo and other native hardwoods, emulating a natural growth forest of the Tanzanian savannah.

Mr. Chuwa is a former Chief Conservator who conducted extensive research on the plants of Ngorongoro crater, identifying four previously unlisted plants, two of which were named in his honor.

In 1986 Chuwa established, with no outside funding, an effort devoted to saving the trees of Tanzania. He began experiments in his own backyard, planting and raising, not only mpingo but a variety of rare and endangered species.

In this way he hoped to discover optimal methods of germination and also to protect the tender seedlings until of such age and vitality that they could survive the hazards of the semi-arid climate of east Africa. When they are old enough to replant into the Tanzanian ecosystem his long history of research in the wild gives him the ability to adequately judge habitats where the seedlings are most likely to survive.

This is an important effort because scientists are already beginning to voice concern about the genetic degradation of mpingo and other rare hardwoods.

Well before a species is officially listed as endangered or even threatened, its genetic stock may be severely undermined, as mature trees with favorable characteristics are continually harvested, thereby leaving trees of inferior quality as the determining breeding stock. Sebastian has replanted over 100,000 trees of mixed species back into the African ecosystem.

Mr. Chuwa and Mr. Harris have now learned the optimum cultivation requirements of the mpingo tree and the experience on how to nurture the seedlings through sprouting in a seed-bed, transplanting them successively into larger containers and ultimately replanting them in the wild habitat.

They have found that is takes about 15 months until the seedlings are of a size and vitality to resist the fires, animals and insects which threaten them in the wild.

Mr. Chuwa's work in documenting the status and implementing conservation efforts regarding the mpingo, or blackwood tree, was covered in a film.

He has been organising grass-roots conservation efforts with local gardeners by getting them to volunteer space to grow and tend mpingo seedlings.




ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, 2000.
Last revised 21 April 2008.