The project team working to save the Critically Endangered endemic cycad (Encephalartos whitelockii) has reported on two more important developments in their work in the Mpanga Falls region of Western Uganda.
Both the recent formulation of byelaws protecting cycads and the demarcation of a strip of land 8km x 100m alongside the river where planting is interspersed with coffee crops are set to create a win-win situation for community and conservation, in a place where management of and access to water resources for agricultural purposes must be balanced with the needs of the unique biodiversity of the Mpanga Gorge.
These developments build on the success from 2015 when the project team planted 6,400 seeds raised in nurseries for subsequent planting in the gorge. An update from the field confirms over 70% of those seeds germinated! According to project coordinator, Matt Cooper that figure would have been higher under different circumstances.
“We believe that due to break-ups in the adult population many female cycads were lacking a male neighbour which would affect the fertilization rate of the seeds, explains Matt. “We were able to deduce that if one seed from a cone germinated (signalling pollination had occurred) then the chances were very high that 95% of the remaining seeds would also germinate.
“Further, the viability of pollinated seeds was much higher than expected - which is great news for both the cycad and the nurseries as it means more plants can be grown from fewer seeds. It also increases the importance of replanting cycads into the gorge so that in years to come there are less isolated females.
“Following on from that we engaged in community meetings to come up with a system of intercropping within the 100 metre ‘Mpanga Protection Zone’: an area along the banks of the river which is currently being demarcated, using highly-visible white concrete pillars. Installed at set intervals, 100m from the banks running for 8km, these will help protect current plants and re-planted seedlings. Effectively, intercropping allows us to balance local farmers’ needs with the goal of increasing the number of cycads living in the Gorge.
“The Encephalartos whitelockii cycad is ideal to be intercropped, being happy in shade or sun. Complimenting this we selected a fast growing indigenous tree in the form of Maesopsis eminii (or Musizi locally) and a crop which requires minimal soil disturbance in the form of coffee – higher value than maize which was the traditional seasonal crop planted in the area. Following interest from Local Government authorities, the project has received 10,000 coffee seedlings to support this initiative.
To further this protection, byelaws have been formulated, in conjunction with the communities living alongside the river and with the sub county and parish chiefs. These protect the cycads while strengthening regulations concerning activities along river banks and within the 100m protection zone.
As a result the cycads now have laws relating directly to their preservation which will permit legal action to be taken by local authorities to protect them from eradication – a first of its kind in Uganda! Not only do the byelaws serve to protect the cycads but also the catchment ecosystem as a whole which is necessary in order to preserve the river as a natural source of water and also to ensure the cycads habitat will be safe for years to come.
Next up for this project is implementing water access solutions for local agriculturalists to continue building on this grassroots success for cycads in Mpanga Falls.