Tanzania's New National Park Protects Edible Orchids

BRONX, New York, March 21, 2002 (ENS) - The New York based Wildlife Conservation Society has succeeded in persuading the government of Tanzania to safeguard a unique area known for its diversity of orchids, many found nowhere else on Earth. It will be the first area in tropical Africa protected primarily for its floral significance.

The Tanzanian government has announced plans to create a new 52 square mile park on the Kitulo Plateau, part of Tanzania's Southern Highlands that will be added to country's 12 existing national parks.


Many rare orchid species are found on Matamba Ridge, on the northern rim of the Kitulo Plateau. (Photo courtesy Tim Davenport/WCS)
"The announcement to create this park is an innovative and laudable step demonstrating Tanzania's commitment to conserving biodiversity," said Dr. Tim Davenport, a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has been active in the Southern Highlands since 1999. "Tanzania is a leader in protecting wildlife and wild lands, and both its government and Tanzania National Parks are to be congratulated."

The project demonstrates the way WCS works, by inspiring people to get involved in safeguarding wildlife as population and development close in on wild lands.

Known as the "Garden of God" by the region's local people, this remote grassland is covered for six months of the year in wildflowers - balsams, honey-peas, bellflowers, irises, lilies, and scores of terrestrial orchids.

Unique chameleons, skinks, frogs and one of the world's rarest butterflies inhabit the area. Twelve globally significant bird species are found in the newly designated area, including breeding colonies of blue swallows, mountain marsh widowbirds, and Denholm's bustards.

Last year, WCS released a report documenting how the region's orchids were being exploited by local people, who exported the plants into neighboring Zambia, where they are eaten as a delicacy. The report says that up to 85 orchid species are being harvested for use in chikanda or kinaka, a delicacy in which the root or tuber of terrestrial orchids is the key ingredient in a type of meatless sausage.

Davenport and his colleague Henry Ndangalasi of the department of botany at the University of Dar es Salaam interviewed 60 people with direct knowledge of the orchid trade. Davenport warned then that some orchid species could be wiped out in a few years without conservation management.


Tanzanian orchids with large tubers, like this one of the Eulophia species, have been dug and exported as food. (Photo courtesy SABONET)
All orchid species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires certification of plants crossing international borders. But scant knowledge of the trade's existence, and a subsequent lack of enforcement of CITES rules, has led to truckloads of uncertified plants entering Zambia each day.

Though rural Africans have consumed orchids for hundreds of years, the recent popularization of eating the plants in Zambia, especially in urban centers, has caused the recent boom in illegal trade, according to the WCS report.

Davenport says the Tanzanian government has invited WCS to continue its conservation work on the plateau, and to take on an active role as the park becomes a reality, particularly in exploring management plans.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society continues its work in grasslands and forests across the Southern Highlands, carrying out ecological research, community conservation, tourism development, and support of regional administrations to protect this unique region and its wildlife.