Protecting Precious Woods in Madagascar

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 has been leading the effort to catalog these species and to determine which require protection and which are potential candidates for carefully managed exploitation. 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.

Taking Control 

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. So far, researchers have described more than 50 new species of precious woods, and the remaining 25 species are now being published. 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 and Pete Lowry have described 33 new species of Diospyros of potential value as sources of precious wood and will publish eight more this year. Their study of Malagasy ebonies has tripled the number of recorded species from about 85 when they started to 250 species they now recognize, including many species too small to be of commercial interest. All but three of these species occur nowhere else in the world.   

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 other researchers, have identified more than 30 new species, including 22 large enough to provide precious woods. They will complete a total revision of rosewoods in 2022. This will bring the total number of Dalbergia species in Madagascar to about 100, of which 60 potentially can produce valuable timber. 

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 is building 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 84 potentially exploitable species of Diospyros has already been incorporated into the tool, which is now being tested. It should be ready to launch in the next few months, and will soon be expanded to include information on Dalbergia species

Plan In Action

The final phase of the work will involve 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. Garden researchers will participate in a series of workshops to share their work with the government over the next three months, and the consortium’s work will be completed by the end of the year. 

“Once 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, “it will be 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 the other species can be harvested to generate badly needed income in an sustainable and equitable manner.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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