Tanzania moves to save its wild orchids

Posted: 1 July 2002

Author: Peter McGrath

Author Info: Peter McGrath is a freelance journalist based in Italy. See: petermcgrath

The Tanzanian government has announced plans to create a national park encompassing the 52 square mile Kitula Plateau in the country's Southern Highlands. It will be the first in tropical Africa to be set up primarily for its floral significance, and will hopefully prevent the destruction of the edible orchids found in the region.

orchidThe terrestrial orchid Disa erubescens from Tanzania's Southern Highlands© Tim Davenport/WCSThe move follows a report last year by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society which highlighted the practice of people living in the Southern Highlands, including the Kitulo Plateau, of harvesting wild orchids. Unsustainable harvesting practices, however, meant that over 80 orchid species were potentially at risk.

In many African countries the fleshy tuber of many orchid species is made into meatless sausages known as 'chikanda' or 'kinaka'. Depending on the region or the ethnic group involved, chikanda was eaten either as a rural delicacy or in times of famine. However, like bushmeat in West and Central Africa, the popularity of chikanda has risen recently in Zambia and an international market has been developing.

"Orchid tubers from three genera,Satyrium, Habenaria and Disa are used in the preparation of chikanda or kinaka and are thus harvested across the region," explains Tim Davenport, a WCS biologist who has been working in Tanzania for the past few years. "It would appear that all species from these genera are taken and some 85 species across the region are involved." In fact, WCS estimates that 2.2 million tubers are being 'strip-mined' from the region each year.

Cash income

Men and women from every age group are involved in digging up the orchids, which often provides a secondary cash income to local farmers. In some areas, it is also considered a family activity, with children helping their parents during the school holidays. The collectors sell their bulbs to village dealers who take them to the border town of Tunduma to trade. Ten years ago, one dealer, known as 'Jackson', from a village in the Makete district was making 20 trips a year to Tunduma, taking ten sacks of orchid bulbs each time. Now he is more organised and makes just two trips a year, but takes many more bulbs, storing them in his village until the price in Tunduma is more favourable. 'Jackson' is just one of six traders in the Makete village.

Because the trade involves local villagers for both collection and trading, the new national park and a ban on orchid harvesting could have serious economic consequences for the local population. However, as Tim Davenport explains, the land set aside for the reserve is government-owned and has been leased out to two farming companies for the past 25 years.

"The farm was being offered for sale," he says, "and, consequently, the gazettement of Kitulo as a National Park is relatively straightforward and certainly won't involve the removal or resettlement of any people or livestock. All local people, including those few collectors and families in the area will continue to live where they always have done and, legally, nothing will change."

Indeed, because of the farm leases on the land, it has technically been illegal for anyone to collect anything on the Kitulo Plateau for the past 25 years. In practice, however, the area's orchids have been under heavy collection pressure. Shipping orchids across international borders also breaks CITES regulations.

However, scant knowledge of the trade's existence by customs officials, and a subsequent lack of enforcement of the CITES rules, meant truckloads of orchids were entering Zambia every day.

"In theory, the economic value placed on the orchid tubers should be able to assist in their conservation, although in practice it is rarely that easy," explains Tim Davenport.

"We are exploring many possible options, including quotas, seasons and licensing, for example, that would assist in managing the trade sustainably." As it stands, the harvesting pressure on the orchids is so intense that, if some form of management is not introduced soon, the orchids and any income derived from them, would soon disappear.

"There are many areas where there used to be orchids but there are no longer any," warns Tim Davenport. "Many parts of Ufipa and Mbeya ranges, for example, have been cleared."

Tourism potential

The new park will now safeguard what the local people call the "Garden of God", which, as well as the orchids, is home to other endemic wildlife such as the Ukinga hornless chameleon (Chameleo incornutus) and the Ukinga montane skink (Mabuya brauni). In addition, the plateau is home to 12 species of globally significant bird species, including breeding populations of blue swallows, mountain marsh widowbirds and Denholm's bustards. Naturally, therefore, there is a great potential for the development of tourism in the area.

"We are already supporting two local NGOs on this issue and setting up village projects adjacent to the areas of conservation concern to enable villagers to earn income directly from tourism," confirms Tim Davenport. The local people will also be involved in developing the management plans for the park, both at the decision stage and the implementation stage.

"The challenge will be to establish a management system that takes into consideration both the needs of the surrounding communities and the specific ecological requirements of this unique vegetation type," he concludes..