Why Conserve Mpingo?

While there is little danger that mpingo will become extinct (it is still a common and widely distributed tree), it is highly vulnerable to commercial and local extinction. However, there is serious concern that the supply of high quality wood is limited and will likely be exhausted if exploitation of the species continues uncontrolled. Already in Kenya mpingo is commercially extinct, and some estimate that there will be no harvestable wood left in Tanzania in as little as twenty years time. A big part of the problem is illegal logging which probably accounts for the majority of mpingo reaching the international market. Most musicians insist on instruments made from solid pieces of mpingo. However trees with very deeply fluted and gullied boles, branch knots, or holes or rotting regions within their heartwood (all common occurrences) are unsuitable for supplying the woodwind trade. Only a few trees are large and straight enough to yield a piece of heartwood of sufficient quality for the production of a clarinet, for example, although carvers tend to incorporate the natural twists and turns of the wood into their works.

Just as the south-east has been one of the least developed regions of Tanzania, so the area’s woodlands are one of the least fashionable conservation causes in the country. The world famous national parks and the remnant forests of the Eastern Arc Mountains are the glamour spots, attracting the most attention and the lion’s share of funding. But the coastal forests are also a global biodiversity hotspot, which, in Lindi Region, are under a new heightened threat. Moreover the continuum into open woodlands, in which much mpingo is found, should not be ignored as these areas would likely return to forest status if allowed to do so. An early research finding of our work was that there was little difference between the habitat in and outside Mitaurure Forest Reserve, and so protecting such areas is likely to contribute significantly to the conservation of endemics and near-endemics of the coastal forests biome.

Further inland, miombo is also a highly species-diverse habitat, and the woodlands are everywhere under threat from rapid fragmentation which could lead to the ecosystem ceasing to function properly on a large scale in the same way that others before have collapsed. The well known mammalian mega-fauna of East Africa (lions, elephants, buffalos etc.) require large ranges. Consequently, for conservation of biodiversity to be effective, large contiguous areas of land must be protected. Even if the reserve system were effective, fragmentation would have a significant impact on the integrity of the conserved areas, so we must find a compelling argument to justify conservation of the forest on public lands also.

Mpingo as a Flagship

Mpingo would make an excellent flagship species for conserving the forests and woodlands of southern Tanzania. It is the country’s national tree, with a presence in local, national and international markets; it is a symbol to which both local people and the international community can relate. Moreover it is (still) sufficiently common that local people could be persuaded to identify the health of the forest with the health of mpingo.

From the perspective of the international market, growing mpingo in plantations is very risky due to the long rotation time. Therefore conserving mpingo in the wild seems to be the best solution to prevent commercial extinction and guarantee a livelihood for local people. Mpingo is the only species in the area which commands this level of interest in the West. Once a sustainable harvesting regime is in place, a programme focused partly on mpingo could secure its long-term funding through a small premium payable by clarinet and oboe consumers who purchase instruments made from well-managed timber. This could be reinforced by the eventual certification of the timber to FSC standards.