Ancient rare tree that was nearly extinct restored in Witu Forest

A nursery of the endangered plant species Euphorbia tanaensis at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute Mokowe in Lamu County. The species is only found in Witu Forest Reserve. 


What you need to know:

  • Lamu boasts extensive areas of natural forests.
  • Particularly noteworthy is the Witu Forest, which is home to the Euphorbia Tanaensis plant.

Lamu County is home to Euphorbia Tanaensis, an endangered cactus-like plant found only in the Witu Forest Reserve. In the 1970s, only four mature trees were left. But thanks to conservation efforts of the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) and partners, the species is now flourishing. Kefri's research and strategies have helped increase its population and prevent extinction.

“This has gone a long way in saving the species from extinction while enhancing the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the ecosystem. Euphorbia Tanaensis is one of the difficult trees to propagate with limited viable germplasm. One of the aspects that Kefri has been working on is the development of propagation technologies to raise seedlings for enhancing the population of the tree,” said Henry Komu, lead researcher scientist at Kefri.

Efforts to conserve ancient tree species have been made by various stakeholders, including planting mature individuals in private botanical gardens and establishing nurseries in different counties. A significant accomplishment was the planting of nursery-raised seedlings in Witu and Kilifi's Arabuko Sokoke forests in 2018.

“Last year, Kefri also won grants from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Funds to support the ongoing conservation initiatives and studies of Euphorbia Tanaensis. In our recent assessments of the species, we were able to identify and document an additional mature tree, increasing the tally of mature live individuals in Witu Forest to five. Unfortunately, we also came across another mature one but it had been cut down,” said Mr Komu.

He thanked the local community for their dedicated efforts in ensuring Euphorbia Tanaensis does not become extinct. “Residents have been able to point out new locations where the species could be found. This calls for more search and inventory of the species within Witu Forest and its environs. So far, all the existing mature trees and surviving seedlings have been geo-referenced and their physical attributes documented,” said Mr Komu.

According to Peter Mwangi, the conservator of Kenya Forest Service (KFS), Lamu boasts extensive areas of natural forests. Particularly noteworthy is the Witu Forest, which is home to the Euphorbia Tanaensis plant. “We’ve had discussions with Kefri and community members about this species which is very rare.

I would recommend that we create awareness in the community around and the Community Forest Associations will help us in conserving the species. We also try to propagate by having more stems of Euphorbia Tanaensis,” said Mr Mwangi.

“Conservationists need to know about endangered and historic trees to protect them.” Euphorbia Tanaensis was discovered by Faraji Bakari Buko in Witu, and was later searched for by botanists in Mambo Sasa in 1995.

“I even helped them in identifying and locating the tree. Most people around don’t know the species. What I am aware of is that dry pieces of this tree when burnt act as a mosquito repellant. More research and education about the tree is really required for our people here,” said Mr Buko.A mature tree has an average height of 15.4 metres with a stem diameter of 31.85cm.

Human activities like deforestation and overuse for medicinal and pesticide purposes threaten the survival of Euphorbia Tanaensis. Conducting an ethnobotanical study to analyse the species' composition and identify its potential for industrial use is crucial for promoting sustainable utilisation and conservation.

This study will also benefit global knowledge and information on the plant's conservation status, informing policy decisions and actions to protect it from extinction.