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

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.

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