At the ports of Madagascar, enormous piles of logs cut from rosewoods and ebonies sit waiting. They can’t be exported because these threatened precious woods were harvested illegally and their sale on the international market is forbidden. Of course, those who don’t play by the rules still manage to export them illegally and make a huge profit. But until the Malagasy government has implemented a plan for the sustainable harvest of precious woods, the country can’t derive any economic benefit from these valuable trees while protecting those species under the greatest threat.
This is where the Missouri Botanical Garden has stepped in.
In 2019, the Madagascar Precious Wood Project was initiated to gather information on all species of rosewood and ebony in Madagascar so that the Malagasy government can sustainably manage this valuable resource. The Garden led the effort to catalog these species and to determine which require protection and which are potential candidates for carefully managed exploitation.
They completed this work in 2022, describing 65 new species in the process. With that information, the government can move toward its goal to replace uncontrolled illegal logging with controlled, sustainable harvesting.
Precious Woods in Madagascar
Madagascar is home to more than several hundred species of precious woods. Many of these are endemic, meaning they don’t occur anywhere else in the world. At least half of these species are threatened, primarily due to land clearing for subsistence agriculture and illegal harvesting. These species are slow growing and take decades to reach their full size. Some of the trees being cut down are centuries old, meaning they can’t quickly be replaced by planting new trees.
Precious woods have been exploited in Madagascar since the early 20th century, but international demand, primarily from China, has exploded over the last 15 years. Without a properly informed management program, the government has been powerless to stop it.
Garden botanists first began studying the ebony genus (Diospyros) in Madagascar about 15 years ago. They quickly realized that more than half the species had not yet been named, making it impossible to identify and manage them, and to control their harvest and sale. It soon became clear that the same was true for the rosewood genus (Dalbergia).
As international concern grew about the scale of illegal exports and the impact they were having on many threatened species, the Garden formed a consortium with colleagues from the University of Antananarivo. The goal was to develop and implement a comprehensive program to recognize and name all species of potential commercial value, produce reliable identification tools, and train local experts to support management and sustainable harvest coupled with law enforcement.
What’s in a name?
The Garden’s portion of the work entailed cataloguing all rosewood and ebony species, refining information on those that already have names, and describing those that are new to science. Through this project researchers have described 65 new species of precious woods. They have also assessed each species’ conservation status to determine which might be suitable for exploitation and which require legal protection.
Garden botanists George Schatz, Pete Lowry, and Alex Linan described 45 new species of Diospyros. Their study of Malagasy ebonies tripled the number of recorded species from about 85 when they started to 255 species they now recognize, including 88 large enough to be potential sources of commercially valuable timber. All but two of these species occur nowhere else in the world. Fifty-two percent of these species are threatened with extinction.
The taxonomy of rosewoods proved even more complex, even though a taxonomic study was conducted just 20 years ago. Garden Botanists Pete Phillipson and Nic Wilding, working with colleagues in Madagascar and Switzerland, have identified more than 30 new species, including 22 large enough to provide precious woods. They completed a total revision of rosewoods in 2022 that brings the number of Dalbergia species in Madagascar to about 100, of which 60 can potentially produce valuable timber, nearly all of which are threatened with extinction.
There’s an app for that
Now that scientists can recognize and distinguish these species, it’s important to make sure others can, too.
To make the information accessible, Ph.D. student Hasina Rakouth built a practical identification tool that can be used by foresters, land managers, customs officials, and others to identify trees, which will complement other tools being developed to use DNA fingerprints, wood anatomy, and other information to identify cut logs and processed wood.
The field identification app differs from standard plant ID tools that rely on photos and geographic information for identification. It will ask users to provide information like their location in Madagascar, the size and shape of the leaf and fruit, and the texture of the bark. The app will then list one or more possible species and display images that illustrate their characteristics, enabling the user to make a final identification and telling them whether the species is threatened.
Information on all 88 potentially exploitable species of Diospyros has been incorporated into the tool which launched in April. Garden staff trained local experts in Madagascar on how to use the tool to properly identify species they can sustainably harvest. The tool is now being expanded to incorporate information on species of Dalberia.
Malagasy researchers working at the University of Antannarivo are also developing complementary tools to identify harvested wood, which will provide the information base needed by the government for an action plan for the conservation and sustainable management of Madagascar’s precious wood.
Plan In Action
In April 2022, Garden researchers participated in a series of workshops to share their work with the government and other key stakeholders. They advised that all threatened species cannot be exploited and materials of these species can’t be exported.
“The scientific community has named and described all of the potentially valuable ebony and rosewood species and developed reliable, user-friendly identification tools,” Lowry explains, “Now, it is up to the government, along with national and international regulatory agencies, to manage Madagascar’s valuable precious woods so that threatened species can be conserved and other species can be harvested to generate badly needed income in a sustainable and equitable manner.”
Updated in June 2022.
Public Information Officer