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Can We Conserve the Palms of Haiti? - a Search for Copernicia ekmanii and Attalea crassispatha

Volume 2 Number 7 - December 1996
C. Hubbuch & S. Michal

In 1986, Thomas Zanoni produced a report on the status of Hispaniolan palms for the World Wildlife Fund. Zanoni's report demonstrated several empty spaces in the data available about Haitian palms. In 1990, Andrew Henderson, Michael Aubry, Joel Timyan and Michael Balick published the results of their work "Conservation Status of Haitian Palms" in Principes, the Journal of the International Palm Society. This report also contained some gaps in information. For example, other than a few specimens reported by Zanoni, no one had seen a population of the Haitian endemic Copernicia ekmanii (formerly Haitiella ekmanii), the identity of a population of Calyptronoma was still questioned by Henderson and the existence of Coccothrinax spissa and Coccothrinax ekmanii in Haiti were unverified.

Suzanne Michal, of BGCI, began working to develop a botanic garden in Haiti in 1995. That year she attended a palm symposium at Fairchild Tropical Garden which addressed several conservation issues. Also in attendance were Andrew Henderson of New York Botanical Garden, Joel Timyan, an independent consultant, and Chuck Hubbuch of Fairchild. Through several conversations over the weekend, it became obvious that most of us in this group were interested in searching for answers to the questions about Haitian palms which arose. Chuck was particularly interested in the status of Copernicia ekmanii because a single specimen at Fairchild was then one of only two documented specimens in the world; the other was found recently in cultivation in Haiti by Andrew. Although Fairchild's plant matured sufficiently to produce it's first seeds in 1991, the germination rate was very low, leading to concerns about in-breeding suppression.

In May 1996, Suzanne, Joel and Chuck participated in a Fairchild Expedition to search for Copernicia ekmanii. Despite rough roads and poor information about the location of the palm, we were able to locate four populations in just three days. The excitement of finding the palms was almost overshadowed by a near catastrophe: while returning from the last population, our little sail boat got into difficulties in choppy seas and nearly filled with water. After bailing steadily for fifteen minutes the water level was low enough for us to resume our return to shore. Although the saltwater destroyed a laptop computer and two cameras, we were satisfied with our survival.

A follow-up expedition later that year saw Suzanne and Chuck returning to investigate a population of C. ekmanii that had been seen only from a distance on the previous trip.

A quick, conservative count of known C. ekmanii puts the species at about 1,200 individuals in four populations. These range from single relict individuals to healthy populations numbering around 500. Out of the total, only a single group of about a dozen vigorous specimens within one of the larger populations produces seed annually. This group is growing in deep, sandy soil; the vast majority of these palms grow on coastal savanna (thin soil over rugged limestone, with cacti, grass and scrubby Acacia trees) which is subject to periodic fires. Very few of the fruiting plants showed any evidence of old or new inflorescences, and judging from the small number of seedlings it seems that these plants flower infrequently. We were able, nevertheless, to collect a few seeds, buying them from local villagers who seemed appropriately protective of the trees.

It could be assumed that Fairchild's plant of C. ekmanii, having the benefits of fertilizer and irrigation, has grown faster than the average wild plant. It first flowered after thirty years from seed, and has a crown of over thirty leaves and a trunk height of about three metres (ten feet). Some of the wild plants holding old inflorescences were less than two metres tall (c. six and a half feet) and held only eight leaves. These plants are probably decades older than Fairchild's plant.

While in the field we also made a quick dash to see another rare Haitian endemic, Attalea crassispatha. At this time, fewer than 30 individuals found only in two adjacent river valleys are known in the wild, perhaps making this the rarest palm in the Americas. Unlike C. ekmanii, A. crassispatha is a canopy tree in remnants of a high, moist forest. Plants at Fairchild have not produced flowers in over thirty years although they have reached heights of about ten metres (c. thirty-five feet) and appear to be healthy. The fruiting trees in Haiti are around thirteen metres tall (c. forty-five feet) and appear quite vigorous. Like C. ekmanii, this palm seems to be relatively slow-growing and long-lived. For an Attalea, it has a small infructescence, holding only about a hundred seeds. Due to human predation on the seeds, seedlings are very rare.

Our findings for both species indicate that we are dealing with two plants which are slow-growing, long-lived and slow to reproduce. It seems likely that these have always existed in small populations adapted to a narrow range of soil and moisture conditions. Human encroachment into their specialized habitats, coupled with exploitation by the expanding human population has threatened the livelihood of the two species: the sturdy leaves of C. ekmanii are a preferred roofing material, and its trunks are one of the only available sources of building lumber; the oily, coconut-like kernels of the seeds of Attalea crassispatha are freely harvested and eaten, particularly by local children.

Historically, over-harvesting of slow-reproducing, long-lived organisms such as these has led to extinction. We hope to direct a different path for these two palms along with other endangered Haitian flora. In this pursuit, Suzanne has formed The Botanical Foundation of Haiti to work on plant conservation and environmental education, and she is also working with the Ministry of the Environment (with support from large international development groups) on a proposed national park system. Possibly elements from both of these may be combined to finance conservation programmes and increase public awareness through ecotourism. C. ekmanni could directly benefit from such endeavours as the coastline where it grows is beautifully scenic and includes several historic forts.

The Attalea requires a different approach as it is found solely in agricultural regions which offers little possibility for natural regeneration or room for reintroduction. If this palm is to be conserved, it will be on private land within its natural range.

As noted earlier, the status of a few other palms remains to be determined, yet the importance of this issue pales alongside others which clamour for attention, eg: bringing in foreign currency, providing environmental education, finding alternative energy/raw material sources and support for basic biological research. Tackling these issues is essential if we are to reverse the current environmental crisis in Haiti. However, at this time each small accomplishment seems like a great stride forward.