Mahogany farmers bet on pollen to save the endangered species

Mahogany farmers in Kenya are counting on a new research that shows that the pollen from the leaf can help the globally threatened species.

The researchers from the University of Adelaide studied the important role played by the trees' pollen in the health and re growth of mahogany forests.

The researchers found that the extensive exploitation of mahogany forests has had a major impact on the diversity and availability of the trees' pollen. This, in turn, limits the ability of individual trees to grow and provide cross-fertilization for other mahogany trees.

"We collected data across seven Central American countries, which shows that trees remaining in cleared forest areas suffer from too much self-fertilization and low pollen diversity," said lead author Martin Breed, a PhD student with the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute and the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences.

"This results in less competitive seedlings and affects the rate of re-growth of the species."

Mr Breed said to restore forests would require replanting key species and finding good-quality seeds from healthy trees. "Growing new mahogany trees has proven a major challenge in the past. By better understanding the importance of pollen diversity, we hope this research provides the key to restoring forests at a much higher rate.

"Ensuring seed is collected from healthy populations will improve our chances of protecting not only mahogany, but the hundreds of other species - and human communities - that rely on it," he says.

Senior co-author Professor Andrew Lowe, Director of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide, said: "Aside from being one of the world's most prized timbers, every mahogany tree provides habitat for hundreds of animals and plants, so they're ecologically very important."

He said this discovery has the potential to impact the way we think about restoring forests and shows us why it is vital to protect areas of high conservation value.

"Preserving areas where large populations of species have existed for the longest time not only assures the future of these iconic sites, but also provides insurance for entire species beyond the sites themselves," said Prof Lowe.

About 5,000 farmers in Kenya grows the various types of the tree, which take about two years to mature. The country has not had enough production of mahogany timber with much of what is grown exported to Uganda and Egypt.

Yet even with its relatively small exports, the country manages to earn some Sh50m for mahogany exports, while carvings using mahogany earn traders some Sh30m a month, according to research by the World Agroforestry Centre.

The discovery, according to the forestry centre, is welcome news to the farmers in the business since a field study identified that the trees were not pollinating and had recorded a 20 per cent decline in the last two years.

Mahogany is the premier timber for furniture, decorative veneer, musical instruments, wooden novelties and doors. The best known use of the timber is for use in light construction, mouldings, cabinets, furniture, panelling, boxes, exterior joinery, weather boards, louvred doors, boat building (especially racing boats), canoes, musical instruments, turnery, matchboxes, household implements, face veneer and plywood. Lower grades are suitable for crates, fencing and animal pens.

The repellent smell of the wood to insects makes it particularly suitable for the manufacture of clothing chests and wardrobes. Kenyan government offices and even private institutions use the timber for their trendy furniture.