The Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative originated as a series of student expeditions from Cambridge University to research the ecology and conservation status of mpingo. Between 1996 and 2003 a total of 56 students (from 8 different universities) and foresters took part in our expeditions. Participating students received opportunities for training, personal development and cultural exchange which many would not have otherwise received. An early conclusion was that some kind of community-based conservation solution was ideal in this case, and those expeditions paved the way for the later development of the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative as a fully fledged NGO. The six expeditions mounted by the project were as follows.
Tanzanian Mpingo 96
Our first expedition spent 7 weeks surveying an mpingo-rich area by Mchinga close to the coast and about 30km north of Lindi, and collected the largest set of data of mpingo measurements currently available. Mpingo was found at an exceptionally high density of 11.9% of trees surveyed, and was the third most common species at the study site. The area had also been recently logged and roughly half of mpingo with girth > 50cm had been removed. This was worrying, not least because the expedition had observed a wide variety of wildlife on the older trees. The expedition demonstrated the suitability of an undergraduate project for this type of work, and provided a testing ground for techniques and analysis.
Tanzanian Mpingo 98
Our second expedition followed a similar pattern to the first one, but broadened out the surveying to cover over 150km² of woodland at Migeregere, about 50km inland from Kilwa. Improved sampling techniques allowed the expedition to collect much better ecological data, and the expedition identified over 100 tree species. 2.1% of trees surveyed were mpingo, and were not found to vary with plot type (riverine, recently burned or unburned) in either frequency or size, but trees in recently burned areas were significantly more likely to be multi-stemmed than in other plot types.
The expedition pioneered the estimation of the maximum straight length that could be extracted from a tree, and used this to calculate that the study area held about 1.03m³ of harvestable wood per hectare. The expedition also calculated the equations of best fit to compute the estimated straight volume of a tree from girth and/or height. There appeared to be no correlation between the appearance of mpingo juveniles and adults in a single plot, indicating efficient seed dispersal. Seedlings were plentiful, but it was difficult to gauge how successful they were at surviving until adulthood.
Tanzanian Mpingo 99
Our third expedition focused on the socio-economic context to 'the mpingo problem' at the village level. The expedition found that, except for those people involved in carving or harvesting, mpingo timber is not crucial to their way of life. It is a popular firewood, and it is used for various utensils and housing parts, but in all cases substitutes are available. A medicinal mulch of mpingo bark and leaves are used to assist in child-birth, though it is unlikely that commercial extinction of mpingo would prevent this use.
Mpingo Survey 2000
The ecological surveying methods of the first two expeditions were applied to a much larger area by Mpingo Survey 2000. The expedition surveyed nearly 1,000km² in six randomly located study sites from across Lindi region. In contrast to the previous expeditions, Mpingo Survey 2000 found very few mpingo, and none at all in two study sites. Adult mpingo trees were found in 10% of plots at an overall density of 1.36 trees per hectare. 54% of trees had a sufficiently straight bole or bole-section that they might potentially be harvestable at some point now or in the future, but only 6% of trees also had a girth sufficient to justify harvesting now. Total harvestable worth of mpingo found in the survey amounted to a negligible 0.0075m³/ha. The expedition was also able to derive a simple model relating basal circumference to that at breast height, allowing future surveys to estimate volumes extracted from stump measurements. Mpingo juveniles were noted in 19% of plots, and were totally absent from the same two study sites from which adult specimens were absent.
Mpingo Carvings Investigation 2001
A small two-man expedition explored the market dynamics of the large carvings co-operative at Mwenge in Dar es Salaam. They assessed the supply and demand for carvings and provided initial estimates of current wood volumes entering the market. They made recommended improving the marketing of the co-operative, and suggested economic measures to enhance sustainability.
Our sixth and final student expedition surveyed harvesting sites in Kilwa district and re-visited the Migeregere area covered in 1998. The expedition aimed to examine the key characteristics of harvesting sites and provide an initial assessment of the impacts of selective mpingo harvesting. Unfortunately the team never completed their data analysis and no full report was ever produced. Despite this disappointing end, this final expedition played a crucial role, developing links with the Danish-funded Utumi Project that was then initiating Participatory Forest Management in Kilwa. Those contacts were instrumental in leading to the later establishment of the permanent field base in Kilwa and the project's transformation into an NGO, no longer just researching mpingo, but implementing practical community-based solutions to its sustainable exploitation, forest conservation and poverty alleviation.