Mpanga Falls in Western Uganda is known as one of the world’s largest areas where endemic cycads (Encephalartos whitelockii) occur. This cycad species is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The remaining population is estimated at about 8,000 individual plants.
SOS Grantee, PROTOS is currently implementing a 15-month project focusing on planting up to 5,000 cycad seedlings. The seedlings are propagated from community nurseries. Project Manager Matthew Cooper, writes to SOS from Uganda sharing some exciting news and his hopes for cycad restoration around Mpanga Falls.
“In early November when we were introducing the project to my colleagues at Tooro Botanical Gardens, I remember during my presentation whenever I discussed the issue of cycad seed germination there would be giggles amongst the staff.
"I approached one of our field guides, George, to find out what had made them laugh. He responded with a broad grin telling me that ‘Without the help of the Enkobe, there is no way we will get the seeds to germinate’.
I had no idea what an ‘Enkobe’ was but this soon became clear as the local name for the cycad is ‘Ekinanansi Kyenkobe’ or the ‘baboon’s pineapple’ and the ‘Enkobe’ is the baboon.
"Many plants have symbiotic relationships with mammals, whose role is to act as a disperser or to assist with germination. Seeds of the Desert Date tree, for example, work as a natural insecticide, killing the snails that host the worms responsible for the bilharzia infection. These were often thrown down wells to purify them.
"However, if you want to plant one of these trees near your water source you would have to risk an encounter with one of the forest elephants because unless the seeds have passed through their digestive tract they simply won’t germinate. Bilharzia or elephant trampling – the choice is yours!
"I knew that baboons are without doubt the main disperser of the seeds as I have found many seeds with teeth marks. However, I have never actually seen a baboon swallow one and so doubted their role in germination.
"Nonetheless, the news that the botanical gardens had not been successful was alarming to say the least, as this was meant to be one of the four main objectives of the project.
We decided to push on and in the beginning of December myself and Lawrence Tusiime, my field assistant, continued with our construction of community propagators.
We opted to construct 4 propagators in each of the communities, namely Ntara and Kanara, with each propagator housing approximately 800 seeds, which meant in total by early December we had planted over 6,400 seeds! We hope most of these will germinate and survive to grow into seedlings.
We gave training to local youth group leaders on how to maintain the propagators which largely consisted of spraying them to keep humidity levels high.
Successful meetings were also held with the District Natural Resource Department who showed that they are committed to the protection of the cycad and who embrace the proposed demarcation of the gorge as a key tool for future conservation efforts.
By the middle of February and with the assistance of project coordinator and water expert, Lieven Peeters of PROTOS, we had started looking for viable sources of water as our in-depth baseline study had shown that almost all local communities were dependent on the gorge for water.
The plan was to create spring wells or catchment tanks for the local communities which could be used for drinking water or for cattle.
We also started work on the construction of the nurseries which would hold the collected seedlings (and germinated seedlings if we got lucky!).
On the day of our departure I decided to have one last look at the seeds that up until then hadn’t germinated and were slowly becoming a cause for concern. As I approached the propagators I was greeted by Remegio, one of our attendants, who had the biggest of smiles and was pointing hurriedly towards one of the propagators. And low and behold there was a seed germinating!
This is fantastic news for the project as not only does it mean that it’s possible to germinate the seeds without the ‘Enkobe’ but it also means it may be possible to set up sustainable community harvesting groups who could propagate and sell the seedlings, either through the botanical gardens or other distributors.
"It also means that ex-situ colonies could be established which would be able to provide seeds for other community groups or botanical gardens.”