Bringing one tree back from the brink

Bringing one tree back from the brink

Deforestation is a leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. It is estimated that about 68% of the world’s plants are threatened with extinction and it is estimated that as many as 50% of all species will be headed this way in the next 30 years. In Tanzania, the number of threatened species has tripled in the last decade as a result of habitat loss.

Extinction is not only a bad thing for the species affected, but it also has negative impacts on people. It is estimated that we have identified a mere 14% of the total number of species on the planet, with approximately 7.48 million species yet to be described. Many of these are likely to have medicinal properties of which we are not aware. For example, among the 1,730 new plants discovered in 2016 were nine species of a climbing vine used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. When we lose species to habitat loss, we also lose their potential curative values and utility for medicine and other uses, forever.

Erythrina is most at home in rocky areas, like this one in Mchakama village’s forest reserve

Erythrina schliebenii is an example of one such tree. This Critically Endangered tree was only known from two collections from the 1930s until it was recollected in a small patch of unprotected forest in southern Tanzania in 2001. It is characterized by rough spines along its trunk and a (rather abnormal) preference for rocky areas, like this one in the forests of Mchakama village in Southern Tanzania. Although relatively unknown to science, E. schliebenii was widely known as “Mnungunungu” in Swahili and “Mlindimila” to the local communities where it once grew. For many years, the bark of this tree had been used for medicinal purposes by people in the village and surrounding communities.

Seven years later, in 2008, it was feared that the last known E. schliebenii trees in the world had been lost when a Dutch company cleared part of that forest for a biofuel plantation. This came at a time of increased unsustainable logging in southern Tanzania, driven largely by an increased connectivity to rural areas and thus accessibility and markets for agriculture as well as timber and other forest products.

Not only was E. schliebenii lost in 2008, but along with it a significant amount of the local knowledge surrounding this tree. Now, if you venture into villages in areas where the tree used to grow, only a few elders and knowledgeable individuals remain who can recall the medicinal properties of the tree and how it used to be used by their community.

“I remember when my son had a high fever, we used Minungunungu [Erythrina] and his condition improved… it has saved a lot of lives.”

Hadija Abdallah Masambala, a member of Mchakama village council recalls how a powder made from the bark of E. schliebenii used to be used to treat illnesses. Mchakama is a remote village, located 90 km from the nearest hospital in Tanzania. The village is inaccessible by car for 3 months of the year during the rainy season.

However, four years on, in 2011, an astonishing turn of events unfolded. During a botanical exploration in southern Tanzania, a group of botanists from the University of Dar es Salaam rediscovered a group of est. 50 E. schliebenii trees. These trees were found surviving in a remote patch of forest, located about a 2 hour hike uphill from Mchakama village. (You can download the full scientific report here.)

We are not ready to let E. schliebenii slip through our fingers again. In southern Tanzania, we (Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative) are working together with WWF-Tanzania and Kilwa District Council to bring this marvelous tree back from the brink of extinction.

In 2016, we worked with Mchakama village to expand their locally-protected forest reserve by 4,113ha, from 1,526 to 5,639, to include an area where the last known remaining E. schliebenii trees were known to grow. Then, in 2017, we supported local people to raise and plant 7,500 E. schliebenii seedlings in this protected area of their village forest reserve.

We apply a natural animal deterrent to the newly planted seedlings to fend off baboons

We take GPS coordinates of the planted trees in the form of geo-located photos so that we can locate them later on to monitor the trees’ survival. One year later, in 2018, we went back with local people to see how these little trees were doing. We found that 6,712 (90%) of the seedlings planted were still thriving. The remaining 10% (788 seedlings) didn’t make it because they weren’t able to compete for sufficient water or because they had been uprooted by wild animals (baboons have a particularly bad reputation for this).

Ladies busy planting Erythrina in the forest

“One thing we did notice early in the process is that monkeys love to feed on Erythrina seedlings. Thus, the first week is very crucial for the seedling survival.” – Jonas Timothy, MCDI’s Director of Field Operations who is coordinating planting of E. schliebenii in community forests.

Building on what we learned in 2017 and 2018, this year we worked with Mchakama village to raise and plant a whopping 18,000 E. schliebenii seedlings in their forest. This time, we’ve trialed a novel means to fend off those pesky baboons in those critical first few weeks after being planted.

“Together with the local communities we have come up with an innovative way to keep the monkeys at bay. We use a local deterrent called Sifa which is made of fish remains. We apply the liquid on the ground around the seedlings; its smell keeps the monkey away thus the seedling thrives. This has been one of our biggest win so far before we used our patrol people to chase the monkey away which was neither a sustainable nor effective way to address the challenge.” – Jonas Timothy.

We look forward to going to follow up on how these seedlings are doing in May/June at the end of the rainy season. By this time, the seedlings should have had plenty of time (and water!) to settle into their new surroundings.

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