Saving an Endangered Palm: The Case of Carpoxylon

Vanuatu in the South Pacific is home to a beautiful but endangered palm. Cathy Clarkin describes the islanders' efforts to save it from extinction.
Fry, K.; Siwatibau, S.; and Clarkin, C. -
Chamaerops No.30 Spring 1998

With a little help from my friends: Carpoxylon macrospermum, alive and well in Vanuatu.

The South Pacific island country of Vanuatu is home to 14 endemic, 5 non-endemic, and 2 naturalized species of palms . Of the endemic palms, 3 are listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union. Of these, Carpoxylon macrospermum is of a monotypic genus.

The Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that undertakes development and environmental projects within Vanuatu. During one of their projects, the Profitable Environmental Protection project, they determined that a possible method for saving the endangered Carpoxylon macrospermum would be to start an enterprise to raise money to fund conservation activities. Out of this idea grew the company Island Palm Products, which markets seeds of Carpoxylon and other palms world-wide.

CARPOXYLON MACROSPERMUM, listed as a highly endangered palm by the World Conservation Union is of a monotypic genus endemic to Vanuatu. In terms of evolution, it is interesting in that it has no close relatives in close geographical proximity. Botanists first described Carpoxylon in 1875 from a specimen collected on the southern island of Aneityum in 1859. Later attempts to find it on Aneityum failed. Thus, it was thought to be extinct until its “rediscovery” on the island of Santo in 1987 by Australian botanist John Dowe. He reported its occurrence only in cultivation. Later, another botanist reported its occurrence on Tanna also in cultivation. Based on this information, it was thought that there were no more natural stands left.

A nation-wide survey mounted by FSP and led by John Dowe found a total of 32 mature fruiting trees in natural stands on three southern islands and some 122 mature fruiting trees in cultivation or escaped from cultivation on a total of six islands. Since 1994 when the survey was conducted, a few more trees have been reported in cultivation on another three islands.

The population and social survey found that the palm was cultivated mostly by man for a range of uses, including the following: the ripe fruit for tobacco pipe; the dead leaf top for a broom; the leaf sheath for a bowl, shovel, mat or baby bath; the young fruit and the seedling for popular and nutritious snacks; and the “bark” for medicine and contraceptives. The fruit of the palm also serves as a source of food for land crabs and flying foxes, which in turn are eaten by villagers.

Carpoxylon macrospermum prefers well-drained, moist, rich soils on valley slopes, in riverine areas and coastal forests. It grows best in sheltered, partially shady locations. Healthy stands have also been found in abandoned settlements in the high, cooler inland areas of the island of Malekula. The seedlings tend to grow close to the mother trees in amongst the forest undergrowth, on ground well furnished with leaf litter and humus.

The FSP survey identified the palm’s broad ecology and morphology, and made observations on flowering and fruiting habits, using these to attempt to identify variability. It found a marked difference in tree height between the Tanna population and those in the rest of the country, the Tanna trees reaching a higher maximum height. There was, however, very little if any other easily observed variability. It also found that the natural stands seemed to be regenerating moderately successfully with a ratio of 2:4:13 of adults:juveniles:seedlings. However, the stands were so scattered and the sizes so small that the long term viability of the population was not assured.

Because there were so few mature trees left, it was important to establish the genetic variability of the species in order to ensure that what still existed was entirely protected. The survey conclusion was that the palm was highly vulnerable and approaching extinction. FSP contracted the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences to complete a DNA analysis on samples collected. This confirmed the existence of only three genetic varieties of the palm. All three occurred on only one island, Tanna, while only one of them occurred on all the other islands. One variety was identified as originating from only one cultivated tree in a village on Tanna.

There are several issues that raise serious concerns about the future of the Carpoxylon palm in Vanuatu:

  • The population survey found that the natural population totalling 26 adult fruiting trees existed in very small and widely scattered stands of adult trees. This restricts cross fertilisation and maintenance of a healthy population with a good stock of genetic variability;
  • Little is yet known of the flowering, pollination and reproductive system of Carpoxylon, i.e. extent of cross fertilisation, what size cross-breeding population is needed for viability in the long term, etc.;
  • While the rate of regeneration observed during the survey showed it to be moderately successful, this does not guarantee long term viability if the total size of the population is insufficient anyway;
  • Since the individual populations do not appear from the DNA analysis to contain much variability, the species is vulnerable to drastic changes in environmental conditions.
  • The forest areas in which the three DNA varieties exist on Tanna are being cleared for agriculture purposes. The natural stand on Futuna consists of only 5 adult fruiting trees in a forest area that is dwindling in size due to agriculture clearing. Only on Aneityum is the forest less threatened by clearing. However, the population there seems to be of only one genetic variety and therefore still vulnerable to extinction with drastic environmental changes.

Clearly the population studies both in the field and through the DNA analysis showed the urgent need for action to save the palm and to conserve what little variability is left. Traditionally, the approach would have been to find some international funding agency to finance the necessary activities for its protection. However, the Profitable Environmental Protection project, under which the Carpoxylon research was undertaken, had a clear mandate to develop profitable enterprise as a tool for conservation.

As a first step to determine the likely success of an enterprise founded on the sales of Carpoxylon seeds, market research was undertaken. This research revealed that there was an interest from overseas palm collectors to purchase seeds of the Carpoxylon palm from the endemic source in Vanuatu. This was the basis of the economic strategy for a conservation enterprise. Next, the three-fold objective of the conservation enterprise was established: (1) through the sale of Carpoxylon macrospermum seeds, to create local economic incentives and awareness that will promote the conservation and replanting of Carpoxylon palms; (2) to earn profits that could subsidise in-situ conservation activities for the palm; and (3) to distribute Carpoxylon seeds throughout the world, thus increasing its chance for survival.

Additional research had to be undertaken before the first sales could begin. A palm specialist was engaged to advise on suitability of seed collection and local nursery establishment. He recommended collection only from cultivated trees in order not to jeopardise chances of regeneration of the natural stands. In order to effectively control this restriction, it was determined to collect seeds only from the islands of Malekula and Pa’ama where no natural stands were known to exist.

A nurseryman dealing in palms was engaged to advise on seed collection, storage, packaging and export. He also advised on seed germination, pricing of the seeds and suitable overseas agents to contact. It was important that reliable retailers be identified who would not undercut the market.

A trial run was made of seed collection, appointment of a local supply agent to purchase from villagers, packing, and exporting. The seeds were exported to retailers in Australia and the USA. Feedback from these retailers was very useful in guiding the project on improving services such as the selection of fresh seeds, husking of seeds, packaging for shipment, and methods of shipment.

Germination trials were run to be able to predict viability of seeds related to shelf life. Germination rates were found to be variable for the different sources. The rate from the main source for export seeds, however, was found to be high at 80% and more. This gave a measure of confidence in the reliability of the export seeds.

Based on the preliminary enterprise and scientific research, FSP felt there was enough evidence that both economic and conservation mandates could be successfully combined for a start-up enterprise, and a registered company, Island Palm Products (IPP), was established under an FSP trading arm known as Island Conservation Initiatives.

IPP was capitalised with a total of about US$50,000 from a USAID grant in October 1995. A business manager was hired from overseas in April 1996, but because of the restricted growing season of the Carpoxylon palm, full business activities did not initiate until about August 1996, when the first seed shipments went overseas. Thus, Island Palm Products has been effectively trading for just two years.

Because of the seasonality of the Carpoxylon seeds, product lines have been added to include the marketing of other palm and horticulture products. IPP currently exports seeds of Pelagodoxa henryana, Caryota ophiopellis, Veitchia montgomeryana, Cycas seemannii, and Metroxylon warburgii in addition to the seeds of Carpoxylon macrospermum. IPP also sells seedlings and small plants of Carpoxylon and the Pelagodoxa on the local market. In addition, IPP offers novelty items such as T-shirts; thus, the conservation component is marketed as well as the resource itself.

There is potential to investigate and test markets for more value-added products or a wider variety of seeds, including non-palm seeds. However, to expand into some of these markets will require an investment in long term plant endurance trials and marketing promotion.

Even though the enterprise has not, to date, produced profits to finance conservation activities, there has been considerable impact on the conservation of Carpoxylon through the nature of business development alone:

  • Local sales promotions, such as participation in National Environment Week, articles in the local paper and talks with local organisations such as women’s clubs, Kiwanis, etc. have increased the awareness of the rarity of the palm and the importance of saving it in Vanuatu. Plantings by individuals in both rural and urban areas has been encouraging. The Port Vila Town Council purchased over 200 juveniles and planted them along roadsides and in front of the nation’s parliament house. Other local entrepreneurs have started nurseries to market the palm locally as a houseplant and garden plant. There is a definite notice of national pride in conserving and promoting a rare palm unique to Vanuatu.
  • IPP has donated to the Vanuatu Environment Unit extra Carpoxylon macrospermum seeds that cannot be sold so that the seeds can be planted in a conservation area.
  • Overseas collectors have become aware of the existence of Carpoxylon macrospermum and have requested seeds for their collections. Carpoxylon palms are now being grown in the USA, Thailand, New Caledonia, Australia, UK, Germany, Venezuela, South Africa and Fiji. With the quantity of seeds and seedlings sold and planted to date, the world population of this palm has already increased significantly to expand the chances for species survival.
  • The government of Vanuatu has included information about the palm in the education materials produced by the Environment Unit and the Education Department, and has become actively involved in its cultivation through germination trials at the Agriculture Department’s experimental station. They are active members of the Conservation Committee established by FSP/Vanuatu and will be partners in the design and implementation of the conservation strategy.
  • Interest and skills in seed collection and preservation and nursery development has developed in Vanuatu among resource owners and other entrepreneurs, not only for palms, but for other plants that may have an economic horticulture value as well.
  • Funding has recently been obtained from the New Zealand High Commission to undertake community education and seed collection on the islands of Tanna and Aneityum.

For more information about Carpoxylon palms, conservation efforts, or Island Palm Products, contact Cathy Clarkin, General Manager, Island Conservation Initiatives, PO Box 951, Port Vila, Vanuatu, South West Pacific, tel. +678-22915, fax +678-24510, - homepage


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