Critically endangered plant rediscovered and now protected by a Tanzanian farming community

Local people in Mchakama village expanded their village forest reserve by over 4,000 hectares to protect a critically endangered plant that was thought extinct for three years!

E. schliebenii is a critically-endangered fern that was rediscovered in local community forests after being thought extinct for three years when the last individual was thought to be wiped out due to illegal logging

E. schliebenii likes to grow along ridges and rocky outcrops like this one in Mchakama village forest reserve

Finding the trees in Tanzania's rugged and diverse landscape took some perseverance - but we got there in the end!

When you hear the word Tanzania, you might picture vast stretches of savannah woodland, a family of elephants marching by, a pride of lions lounging in the shade of a lone acacia tree, or a lone giraffe leaning in for water at lakeside. You might even already know about the rural communities who (with our support) are working to protect the habitats of these animals that are iconic to Africa's wilderness. I bet what you don't immediately think of are critically endangered plants - so specialised that they only exist here, in south-east Tanzania, and nowhere else on Earth.

Erythrina schliebenii is a local fern that was believed to have gone extinct in 2008, when the only known surviving trees fell victim to commercial logging. However, since then, in March 2011, a small population of fewer than 50 individual trees was rediscovered in the forests that skirt a small farming community, Mchakama. With so few individuals remaining and in such a restricted area, these lone survivors are at risk of being wiped out as forests are cleared and degraded for other unplanned uses such as agricultural production and livestock grazing.

We're working with WWF Tanzania, Kilwa District Authority and the local people in Mchakama village to prevent this from happening. In 2016, through the partnership we helped the village natural resources committee to map out the distribution of E. schliebenii  and another critically endangered tree, Karomia gigas, in their local forests. Using the information collected, the community expanded its village forest reserve to include an additional 4,100 hectares of miombo woodlands and coastal forests where E. schliebenii and K. gigas are known to thrive. We also busied ourselves by collecting 5,931 seeds and 136 cuttings of E. schliebenii, which we raised in our nursery and then replanted in the forests. This year we have established a community owned tree nursery in Mchakama village to raise and plant 10,000 seedlings of E. schliebenii.

A win-win situation

Not only will this project help to ensure the future of E. schliebenii and K. gigas, but it will also bring benefits to local people. With the new expansion, Mchakama's village forest reserve has more than tripled in size, from 1,526 to 5,639 hectares. This will bring substantial benefits to the community who can now harvest and sell sustainable timber from the forest to generate important income. Moreover, the two plants themselves have local uses which make them valuable. The bark of E. schliebenii, for instance, is used locally for medicinal purposes; further research could reveal additional properties which could contribute to advancing western medicine. Special management procedures and safeguards have been  put in place to ensure that harvesting doesn't impact the plants, including setting aside an area dedicated purely to their conservation and through a biodiversity monitoring programme. Mchakama's forest is also certified as meeting the highest international standards of responsible forest management under our Forest Stewardship Council group certificate - the only one for community-managed natural forests in Africa.