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
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 palms 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
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
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 Paama
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
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
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
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
- Local sales promotions, such as participation
in National Environment Week, articles in the local paper and
talks with local organisations such as womens 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 nations 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
- 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
Departments 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
- 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
- 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
- homepage www.ecotrading.org
06-08-20 - 00:52GMT
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