BP Tanzania Joins Campaign to Save Mpingo
The Guardian, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 1998
by Charles Nzo Mmbaga


Mpingo, a valuable blackwood tree, botanically referred to as Dalbergia melanoxylon, or ebony, is calling for help; it faces extinction in East Africa. And this is bad news.

It is also disastrous for American ornamental turners and Western classical music, as well as for local carvers who rely on it.

The blackwood is widely harvested in East Africa for both the export billets for woodwind instruments and those distinctive traditional Makonde carvings by native Africans.

It is the foremost source of wood for concert-quality woodwind instruments and is the premier natural material available today for ornaments. It is also a vital element in the East African ecosystem, providing forage for migrating animal herds and, as a legume, providing valuable nitrogen fixation through its roots to enrich the soil.

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

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.

Tanzanian Mpingo ’98, is an international expedition initiative striving to save the tree from extinction, 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, is a Cambridge University-approved expedition team which is working in collaboration with 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, "we will be conducting two surveys: one inside the reserve and another just outside to gauge the impact of human exploitation of the land on the local population and regeneration of mpingo."

They well be concentrating particularly on the effects of fire and shifting cultivation on regeneration. They will also investigate local attitudes towards the tree.

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, whose research Landrover will be filling free fuel from a nearby BP filling station.

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 has been conducting growth experiments for some years now with the mpingo, aimed at replenishing the native stands of African blackwood.

In the process of the project, Mr. Chuwa and Mr. Harris have 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.

Mr. Chuwa has 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.

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