Twice `extinct` trees rediscovered in coastal Tanzania

The coral tree Erythrina schliebenii was collected with mature seeds for the first time, allowing taxonomists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew to confirm it as a distinct species.

Scientists have confirmed the rediscovery of two species of trees feared to have been extinct twice, according to a report published in the Journal of East African Natural History.

Erythrina schliebenii has only survived because it grows in rocky areas that are not usually cleared for cultivation, but even those areas will be cleared one day if nothing is done.

The discoveries were made in highly threatened fragments of dry forest in the coast of Tanzania.

One of the species, Erythrina schliebenii, belongs to the genus of ‘coral trees’ which have spectacular red flowers and viciously spiny trunks, according to the journal.

The tree was only known from two collections from the 1930s until it was recollected in a small patch of unprotected forest in 2001.

It was feared that it might have become extinct again when a Dutch company cleared part of that forest for a biofuel plantation in 2008.

The other type, Karomia gigas, was only known from a single specimen cut down a few years after it was first discovered in coastal Kenya in 1977.

Another tree was found some 600kms away in a tiny fragment of forest in Tanzania in 1993, but a more recent search at the same site was unable to relocate it.

Last year botanists from the University of Dar es Salaam set out to look for both trees near where they had been found. They discovered small populations of both in remote coastal forest near Kilwa in south east Tanzania.

The coral tree Erythrina schliebenii was collected with mature seeds for the first time, allowing taxonomists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew to confirm it as a distinct species, the journal said.

This was only possible through consulting reference collections of coral tree specimens housed in herbaria throughout the world.

Neil Burgess, senior advisor to WWF’s conservation and Africa programme, noted that it is important to involve local communities in the conservation of forests as a way of developing lasting partnerships that can help them benefit sustainably from forest resources.

“The re-discovery of these two trees highlights the lack of information in a forested region where we could be losing species without ever knowing they are there. Conservation of these forests, in partnership with local villages, is essential. This can also lead to standing forest being used as an income source for communities through the development of sustainable logging initiatives,” Burgess said.

Recent improvements in infrastructure, together with a rapid population increase, are putting the coastal forests of South East Tanzania under increasing threat of being degraded and cleared, he said.

“Erythrina schliebenii has only survived because it grows in rocky areas that are not usually cleared for cultivation but even those areas will be cleared one day if nothing is done,” added Cosmas Mligo, a botanist from the University of Dar es Salaam.

Roy Gereau from the Missouri Botanical Garden who coordinates the IUCN Red Data book listing of East African plants, said: “Both trees are still in critical danger of extinction, given that fewer than 50 individuals of each species are known.”

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Source: World Water Forum

WWF is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, with more than five million supporters and a global network active in more than 100 countries.

Recent fieldwork in Tanzania’s coastal forests was supported by the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme, WWF and the Tanzania Forest Service.

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