Bamboo's last shoots

Posted: 7 May 2004

Urgent action is needed to protect the world's remaining wild bamboo reserves from deforestation and the much-loved but endangered species that depend on them for habitats and food, warns a UN report.

Bamboos are distinct and fascinating plants, with a wide range of values and uses. They play a significant role in biodiversity conservation and contribute to soil and water management. They are important for biomass production and play an increasing role in local and world economies.

Bamboo forest. Photo: Jorg Stamm
Bamboo forest. Photo: Jorg Stamm
The conservation of bamboo forests is a vital part of such protection given their key role in sheltering the mountain bongo during the dry season.© Jorg Stamm
Millions of people use wild bamboo for food, construction material, furniture, handicrafts and even musical instruments. And international trade in bamboo products, mostly from cultivated sources, is worth more than $2 billion annually.

However, unless steps are taken to secure their survival, one-third to a half of the world's 1200 woody bamboo species could become extinct as their forest habitat dwindles.

The study, produced by International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and UNEP-WCMC (United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre), is the most comprehensive ever undertaken on the subject. It shows that many bamboo species, including relatives of those cultivated commercially, have tiny amounts of forest remaining within their native ranges.

Some 250 woody bamboo species have less than 2000 km² of forest (an area the size of London, UK) remaining within their ranges. The study shows locations of high forest bamboo diversity and the areas where deforestation risks are highest, creating a valuable planning tool for conservation action.

Endangered species

The report identifies unique and endangered species that depend almost entirely on bamboo for food and survival, in every region where bamboo occurs.

In Asia these include the red panda and Himalayan black bear, and perhaps best known, the giant panda.

bamboo shoots can make up 90 per cent of the gorilla's diet.Photo: Jose Kalpers/IGCP
bamboo shoots can make up 90 per cent of the gorilla's diet.Photo: Jose Kalpers/IGCP
When bamboo plants sprout in June and November, bamboo shoots can make up 90 per cent of the gorilla's diet.© Jose Kalpers/IGCP
In Africa, mountain gorillas depend on bamboos for up to 90 per cent of their diet in some seasons. The survival in the wild of the mountain bongo depends on conservation of the bamboo thickets to which it migrates during the dry season.

In Madagascar, the critically endangered greater and golden bamboo lemurs depend on bamboo for much of their diet, and the rarest tortoise in the world, the ploughshare tortoise, is also intimately connected with bamboos.

In South America, the spectacled bear, the mountain tapir and many endangered bird species are connected with bamboo in the Andes, Amazon and Atlantic forests.

Conservation and sustainable management of wild populations of bamboo should be high priority, especially where diversity is high or deforestation is a significant threat, urges the report.

Bamboo facts

  • Although very few bamboo species are listed as endangered by IUCN, one third to one half of the world's 1200 woody bamboos may now be in danger of extinction because so little forest habitat remains within their ranges.
  • These include one African species, 10 endemic species in Madagascar and 95 species in the Americas that have less than 2000 km² of forest remaining within their ranges. Over 180 woody bamboo species in the Asia Pacific region have similarly limited amounts of natural forest habitat remaining.
  • Bamboos can be very fast growing; a Japanese species grows 1.2 metres a day (D Franklin, Charles Darwin University).
  • Bamboos are important structural components of many forest ecosystems and play a major role in ecosystem dynamics through their distinctive cycles of mass flowering and subsequent die-off - in many species all individuals flower simultaneously (at intervals of a few years to decades depending on the species) and subsequently die.
  • Many specialised animal and bird species depend upon bamboos, and some of these are endangered.

Published as part of its Biodiversity Series (No. 14), Bamboo Biodiversity, can be downloaded from the 'Publications' site of: www.unep-wcmc.org.