The Pacifc Ebony and the importance of ecological knowledge

The jet-black heartwood of ebony trees is much sought after as an ornamental wood for furniture, musical instruments and other wooden products. The wood is formed by only a few species in the genus Diospyros and obtained from the center of the stem. In the South-West Paific, ebony wood is mostly used for carvings, and the Marovo Lagoon region in the Solomon Islands and the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea are particularly well known for their exceptional carvings.

Lower part of a yam house carving with ebony wood and inlaid with mother of pearl from the Trobriand Islands. Photo: Gunnar Keppel.

Carvings made from ebony wood have become so popular with tourists that carvers and harvesters of ebony wood can earn considerable revenue. This increasing popularity has increased the demand for, and harvesting of, ebony wood. Because an increasing number of people were reporting declining supplies, Ramokasa Anisi set out to investigate the status of species producing ebony wood on Vangunu Island in the Marovo Lagoon as part of his Master of Science.

The first step was to determine the species that was producing the ebony wood, which he found to be Diospyros samoensis, the Pacific Ebony. This species is found throughout Melanesia and Western Polynesia and has also been reported to produce ebony wood in Fiji. Next, he used questionnaires with local harvesters and carvers of ebony wood and the responses confirmed the economic importance of revenue earned from the sales of carvings and that the supply of ebony wood was considered to be declining.

Flowers and Leaves of the Pacific Ebony, Diospyros samoensis. Photo: Ramokasa Anisi.

However, it was his ecological studies that revealed the biggest surprises. He located many populations of the Pacific Ebony and learned that only a few trees in a population will produce ebony wood. Therefore, while the product of ebony wood was becoming rare, the species producing the product remained relatively common. However, in order to determine whether ebony wood was present in the centre of the tree, harvesters often inflicted deep wounds on the tree and, in a few cases, cut down the entire tree. Furthrmore, populations of the Pacific Ebony that were most heavily harvested for ebony wood had poor regeneration.

Therefore, his ecological data provided important insights. Ongoing logging in the Soloon Islands posed a bigger threat to the Pacific Ebony than did the harvesting of ebony wood. Furthermore, a total ban on the harvest and sale of ebony wood would only have small benefits for maintaining trees of the Pacific Ebony (but would considerably impact the livlihoods of local communities). However, improved harvesting practices would reduce mortality and improve regeneration in Pacific Ebony populations. Therefore, good ecological data can help making more effective conservation decisions, such as prioritising the improvement of community education over the implementation of harvest bans in the case of the Pacific Ebony.

Further Reading: Anisi R, de Souza A, Brodie G, Thaman R, Peters S, Jessop LW & Keppel, G (in press). The impact of ebony wood harvesting on Diospyros samoensis (Ebenaceae) on Vangunu Island, Western Solomon Islands. Pacific Conservation Biology.

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