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Ecological footprint of the wooden rhino: depletion of hardwoods for the carving trade in Kenya
by Anthony B. Cunningham

Conservation and development issues

Resource depletion : the remains of a muhuhu "mahogany" (Brachylaena huillensis) stump. AB Cunningham
Wood carving is a major industry in Kenya, growing significantly over recent decades. The annual value of exports has expanded from 75,000 (at 1950's rates) to US $20 million today. This developmental success owes much to the high carving and business skills of the Akamba people, who started and still dominate the trade. The increasing demands of the market, coupled to the fact that many of the species used are slow-growing hardwoods, has led to depletion of some of the favoured species. Surveys conducted under a People and Plants’ project have documented this decline, including for mpingo or "ebony" (Dalbergia melanoxylon) and muhugu or "mahogany" (Brachylaena huillensis). Some wood carvers - aware of the problems of supply - have sought alternatives through cultivation or by testing other types of wood.

Apart from sustainability of the wood base, further conservation issues are possible genetic degradation of the species, as some populations are decimated or destroyed, and degradation of the coastal Kenyan forests. The latter are internationally recognised for their importance for biodiversity conservation, having many endemic species. They exist today only precariously, as small isolated and threatened remnants.

Conservation and development initiatives

For some years, the Mennonite Central Committee has encouraged the industry as a means of improving people's livelihoods, through assistance with marketing and quality control in manufacture. The fate of the most favoured carving species, mpingo or Dalbergia melanoxylon has been discussed in conservation circles for some years. Apart from carving, it is much in demand for the manufacture of woodwind instruments, such as oboes and clarinets, and fetches the highest price per volume of any African timber. It was proposed for listing in CITES in 1994, but its nomination was withdrawn at the last minute.

Contributions of ethnobotany

People and Plants initiated an ethnobotanical project as a result of two separate initiatives: (1) concerns expressed by the Mennonite Central Committee over decline of the resource base; (2) identification of the extense of the problem by Tony Cunningham (People and Plants' Regional Coordinator) based on his experience elsewhere in Africa. From the start, efforts were made to ensure the involvement of all major stakeholders in Kenya, including the carvers themselves, traders, concerned NGOs, and conservation and forestry organisations. This inclusive approach was adopted to increase the reliability of the results and raise the likelihood that recommendations resulting from analyses would be adopted. Apart from the Mennonite Central Committee, the organisations involved have included the Kenya Carving Cooperative Union (KCCU), the Kenya Forestry Research Organisation (KEFRI), KENGO (a local NGO), the East African Wildlife Society and the National Museums of Kenya.

African Wildlife Society and the National Museums of Kenya.

Researcher Raymond Obunga acted as local coordinator during Phase 1 of the study, working with Richard Masila and other members of the Kenya Crafts Co-operative Union (KCCU) and Gordon Sigu and other Kenya Forestry Research staff. The intention was to gain a good overall picture of the problem, through research both on resource demand (social and economic organisation of the industry; discussions with carvers on species used and the localities of extraction - now and in the past) and the resource base (studies of the volumes of wood available for selected species, and their regeneration - both at sites already harvested and in, as yet, unharvested areas). The second phase of the project aimed, among other objectives, at finding alternatives to over-harvested species and promoting "good woods" through a campaign. This was directed both to carvers and buyers. Simultaneously, more detailed studies of the economics of the trade were initiated, since it is thought that the financial value of the hardwoods used has been grossly underestimated - with potential implications for the development of forestry policy in Kenya.

A drama in Kikamba used to transfer research results and the message about resource depletion. AB Cunningham

Results to date

An historical survey conducted with long-serving woodcarvers has shed much light on the origin and dynamics of the trade. The entire industry was started by one person, Mutisya Munge, who learned his skills from the Makonde people while serving with the British army in former German East Africa (now Tanzania) during the First World War. Settling back at his home at Wamunyu - to the east of Nairobi - in 1919, Mutisya Munge started to sell his carvings and teach others about the craft. Before long, Akamba carvers were spreading out to new areas in search of fresh markets in Kenya and beyond. Today, 60 000 woodcarvers are involved in what is called a "carvers’ co-operative" but in fact is a clan and extended family based business network. Key carving centres can be found not only at Wamunyu itself, but also at Nairobi, Mombassa, Malindi and near Mt Kenya, selling mainly to tourists. Additionally, carvers export directly to the United States, Japan and Europe.

Altogether, about 50 species of tree are exploited, many on minor scales in comparison to the generally favoured mpingo or Dalbergia melanoxylon and muhugu or Brachylaena huillensis. Initially, the developing carving industry at Wamunyu was able to obtain supplies close-by, but, as these become exhausted, so frontiers of resource depletion spread out from this; today, logs for Wamunyu are obtained from sites well over 100 km distant. Other carving centres have become similarly dependent on distant sources of supply, including through imports fromTanzania.

Finishing touches to carved giraffes at Akamba Carvers Co-operative,Mombasa. AB Cunningham
Size-structures of populations and features of regeneration were determined for four selected species in sample plots established in harvested and unharvested areas. Details of sampling, such as the detailed disposition of plots, was discussed with local people to benefit from their knowledge. The number of plots selected per area was dependent partly on the sizes of stands. For example, at one site, 40 randomly located 20 x 20 m plots were considered adequate to gain a reasonable idea of the population structure and impacts of harvesting. Data collected included diameter at breast height (dbh) and density -standard forestry measurements - as well as some parameters not traditionally noted by foresters, such as basal diameter (to ensure that comparisons could be made between uncut and felled individuals), height of cut, methods of cut (e.g. axe, chain-saw) and estimates of the time of felling.

Regeneration was studied though counts of seedlings and sprouts in 1 x 1 m plots. Cases of root excavation were noted - the fact that people could be bothered to embark on such rigorous labour is an indication of the great pressure placed on such highly prized species as mpingo. Information was collected on the rates of growth of mpingo in trial plots established by the Forest Department. Mpingo and most of the other favoured species are slow growing. There is some small-scale cultivation by farmers, but, even if these species are not planted in substantial quantities, there is a need for alternative sources of wood to meet anticipated demands. Older carvers are well aware that the continuing success of the industry is under threat and have tested many other species for their carving qualities on their own initiative. Data on growth rates of some potential alternative species were obtained from measurements of the size of trees planted at Wamunyu, the dates of establishment being determined from farmers.

Many muhugu trees are hollow - for instance, no fewer than an estimated 9360 out of the 20,800 logs used per year by woodcarvers at Mombassa and Malindi according to a survey by Raymond Obunga and Solomon Kyalo of the East African Wild Life Society. Destruction of these hollow trees poses a threat to conservation of biodiversity in the Kenyan coastal forests because of the importance of tree hollows for animals. Felling of hollow-trunked trees deprives the rare Sokoke Scops owl of nesting sites and destroys a habitat used by the Golden-rumped elephant-shrew (4000 of which lose their homes every year according to the survey).

A key workshop with representatives of all major stakeholders was held in Nairobi in December 1997 to discuss the results and recommend how the project should develop. A major decision was to promote the use of certain alternative species - notably neem (Azadirachta indica), Grevillea (Grevillea robusta) and mango (Mangifera indica). Supplies of these species - all introduced to Africa - are believed to be available in substantial quantities. Their wood is of an acceptable quality for carving. Neem - a multipurpose tree favoured in agroforestry - is invading the coastal forests, endangering survival of endemic species; promotion of its use could help save the forests in more ways than one.

Promotion of "good woods" has now become a major aim of the project, using several methodologies. The intention is to raise awareness among carvers, buyers, and conservation and development organisations. A poster has been produced and widely distributed. The message has been carried to the carvers through drama, with a play written by Vinette Mbaluluto and Fidelma Kyalo, performed by carvers and their relatives and which has toured the carving centres. Apart from promoting alternative species and tree planting, the play highlights other ways in which carvers can help take the pressure off the threatened species and forests, including the use of innovative designs to reduce waste. The Mennonite Central Committee is encouraging export of "good woods", including through screening a promotional video produced by People and Plants in retail outlets in Canada and the United States. Furthermore, it is returning 3% of receipts from retail sales abroad for the development of tree nurseries in villages. "Green corners" are being established at some retail outlets in Kenya. Additionally, a study has been carried out by KEFRI to identify carving timbers, both through macroscopic features as can be seen on the surface and microscopic anatomy - the results could be valuable for checking the types of wood used for carvings as the campaign develops.


The project will continue to promote a shift towards "good woods" -meaning, in practice, largely towards trees grown on farms and away from wild collection. The willingness of farmers to become involved in tree planting is likely to depend partly on the security of their tenure over land-holdings - at Wamunyu, land is currently being registered to private farmers, which is likely to increase their motivation to take a longer-term perspective. There is much potential for the involvement of agroforestry institutions, such as the International Centre for Research on Agroforestry (ICRAF), which fortuitously has its international headquarters in Nairobi. The development of a certification scheme for carvings is being investigated.

Comments and lessons learnt

1. There is no doubt that the Kenyan woodcarving industry has been a remarkable success in terms of local enterprise and export development by the Wakamba people - and a great contrast to many crafts production programmes in Africa where producers only get a small portion of the profits. In this case, a "vertical integration" of different levels of marketing and production has kept many benefits within the carving community. One of the main reasons for this are the close clan and extended family links of the Wakamba people who dominate this business, with the attention they have paid to quality control, prices and innovation. The long term success of this business is threatened by resource depletion - and "resource mining" rather than "resource management" has been a feature of this industry.

2. From the outset, the project took the view that answers to the over-exploitation of woodcarving resources could only be found (a) if time and effort were spent understanding the history and dynamics of the trade and the impacts of key species used and (b) if all interest groups were involved.

3. Considerable efforts have been made to involve all the main stakeholders throughout the project. This has proved extremely helpful for gaining an understanding of different perspectives and establishing an agreed agenda for research and action.

4. The recommendation to replace the wild harvesting of slow growing species with the cultivation of faster growing alternatives is one likely to be relevant to many similar cases of over-harvesting wild plants.


The information used for this case study is based partly on the unpublished work of Raymond Obunga. Funding was made available from the Department for International Development (DFID, UK), the National Lottery Charities Board (NLCB, UK) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF UK). The research was carried out with support from Nina Marshall of TRAFFIC.

Further information

Two videos are available:

  • Saving the wooden rhino: ethnobotanical methods and the Kenya woodcarving industry. Camera and Direction: Tony Cunningham. Editing: Nick Chevallier Productions. This is a training video which describes the methods used. 25 minutes.
  • Carvers, conservation and consumers. Camera and Direction: Tony Cunningham. Editing: Nick Chevallier Productions. This is a promotional video, explaining the reasons why "good woods" should be encouraged. 11 minutes.

Both videos are available from the following organisations, which can provide details of terms and conditions: WWF International Television and Film Centre, P.O.Box 7, 3700 AA Zeist, The Netherlands. Fax 31 30 6922484. email sflipsen@wwfnet.org

Television Trust for the Environment. TVE, Prince Albert Road, London
NW1 4RZ. Fax 44 171 586 4866. email tve-dist@tve.org.ukl


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