Contact Us  |  Search  
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research
Development, Security, and Cooperation
Policy and Global Affairs
Home About Us For Applicants For Grant Recipients Funded Projects Email Updates
Cycle 7 (2018 Deadline)

Building a reference collection for Malagasy rosewood, palissander and ebony identification

PI: Bako Harisoa Ravaomanalina (, University of Antananarivo Madagascar
U.S. Partner: John Hermanson and Michael Wiemann, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory
Project dates: November 2018 - May 2021

Project Overview:

7-477_Harisoa in Lab
PEER Project PI Dr. Ravaomanalina in her lab at University of Antananarivo
 7-477_Ambohidray nurseries
One of PEER project sites with nurseries. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ravaomanalina
7-477 tending to nurseries
Nurseries being tended to by local community volunteers in Ambohidray, southern Madagascar. Photo courtesy Lina Stankute-Alexander (NAS)
7-477 Toliara site visit crew
NAS and USAID site visit at the field site in Ambohidray, Southern Madagascar June 2019
7-477 on the way to Toliara
Site visit crew Daniel Whyner (USAID/Madagascar) and Lina Stankute-Alexander (NAS) greeted by local community en route to Ambohidray field site
7-477 hermanson site visit2
USG partners Dr. Hermanson and Dr Wiemann's with the PEER team during their January 2020 visit in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Dr. Hermanson
This project is motivated by the problem of ongoing illegal logging of precious timber species in Madagascar. Madagascar is a source of two commercially important precious woods derived from species in the genera Dalbergia and Diospyros that are known by the vernacular names rosewood, palissander, and ebony. The ever-increasing demand for precious timber on the international market has led to a massive increase of illegal exploitation in Madagascar in recent years. Despite existing national trade bans, illegal exploitation continues unabated in many forested areas. The inability of the Malagasy government to curb illegal exploitation and trade has resulted in the listing of logs and sawn wood of both Dalbergia and Diospyros in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The listing is necessary to impose monitoring over the trade legality of wood and wood products and help ensure that exploitation is not detrimental to the survival of the exploited species of concern. However, monitoring the trade through identification of individual species and points of origin is difficult when botanical materials such as leaves, flowers, and fruits are no longer associated with timber products (for example, standing trees that are not in flower/fruit, or logs or sawn wood). Additionally, gaps in the taxonomic circumscription of species of Dalbergia and Diospyros are subject to much debate. Up to now, Malagasy precious woods have been traded under the local vernacular names rosewood, palissander, and ebony. Reliable species identification requires a reference wood sample that is connection to accurately identified botanical material, yet no such vouchered library of woods of Malagasy Dalbergia and Diospyros exists today.

Project objectives:

(1) Develop accurately identified collections of wood specimens and their associated herbarium vouchers of all Malagasy CITES listed Dalbergia and Diospyros species. These collections will be used for taxonomic revisions and for establishing and validating different identification systems. A reference collection for all species will include supplemental information for each sample and will provide a set of reliably identified reference samples for use with the development of emerging wood identification methods. 
(2) Finalize identification systems that are being developed by Dr. Ravaomanalina based on wood anatomy and extended analytic-based wood species tools, incorporating the results of the wood anatomy and machine learning research of Drs. Wiemann and Hermanson;
(3)  Reduce species extinction risk by promoting ex-situ conservation at four sampling sites and/or protected areas.The team will set up nurseries to grow young plants and promote the planting of rosewood, palissander, and ebony throughout Madagascar

Developmental impact

This project will facilitate an exhaustive inventory of species of Dalbergia and Diospyros throughout Madagascar and help decision makers to evaluate the current status of the country’s precious wood resources. The project will also contribute to Madagascar’s efforts to replace the current unsustainable, abusive and often illegal trade in precious woods with a sustainable and equitable commercial system, one that both provides tangible benefits to local communities and promotes exploitation at levels that will generate reliable, steady income over decades. In the current system, only a few actors benefit from the harvest and sale of Dalbergia and Diospyros, and there is little or no incentive to manage these valuable resources sustainably. Yet a well-organized and managed system to manage and oversee the commercialization of precious woods could make an important contribution to economic development, generating significant revenue locally among the low-income populations that live in close proximity to areas that still have precious wood resources, as well as at the regional and national levels. The activities proposed here will help the scientific community meet its commitment to deliver key elements required for a properly controlled and well manage commercial precious woods sector, and without which sustainable exploitation will remain impossible.

Summary of Recent Activities

During January - March 2020 reporting period, the PEER team continued work on their main objective to develop accurately identified collections of wood specimens and their associated herbarium vouchers of all Malagasy CITES listed Dalbergia and Diospyros species for taxonomic revisions and for establishing and validating wood anatomy identification systems; and finally reduce species extinction risk by promoting ex-situ conservation at four sampling sites.

Development of accurately identified collections of wood specimens and their associated herbarium vouchers of all Malagasy CITES listed Dalbergia and Diospyros species continues and field collection and preparation of reference samples and Rehabilitation is ongoing. The same standard sampling protocol established by a consortium formed by ETH Zurich, MBG and the University of Antananarivo were applied during the campaigns in order to develop a reference sample collection that can be used with different identification techniques. Before going to the field, the collect and research permit was renewed from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Management.  

Collaboration with the local guides in different areas of the country who checked the phenology of Dalbergia and Diospyros species are also ongoing. Three sites were visited during the reporting period. The team performed 66 collections at two sites, including 7 of Dalbergia and 59 of Diospyros, generating a total of 96 herbarium specimens, 63 wood samples for anatomical and mass-spectrometry studies, 70 bark samples for morphological and anatomical investigation, 131 leaf samples for morphometrics, and 203 silica-gel preserved samples for DNA analysis, all accompanied by photos and comprehensive field data. Almost 90% of the collected specimens during reported period are fertile. All information associated with the collected samples were captured and archived in the Tropicos database ( available on-line through the Madagascar Catalogue project; all collected specimens belong to the Malagasy Precious Woods Consortium reference collection.

Almost 90% of the rehabilitation work is completed. The wood reference collection library building has been delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic, the remaining activities have been postponed. In the meantime, all the wood and herbarium specimens collected by current projects will be kept in the building.

The process of finalizing of identification systems based on wood anatomy and extended analytic-based wood species tools, incorporating the results of the wood anatomy and machine learning research, lab work and USG Partners' collaboration also continue. The ongoing problems with the procurement of chemicals and reagents delayed the start and hindered the performance of the lab
analyses. The small, medium, and large trees are being analyzed in order to complete the first atlas of Dalbergia and Diospyros species from Madagascar. Hundred (100) samples belonging to 10 Dalbergia and 10 Diospyros have been analyzed to date, but as the genus is very species rich, the PI notes, they will probably not be sufficient alone to distinguish among all Dalbergia and Diospyros species and more species and replicates should be included in the analysis. Collected specimens from EU and PEER projects will be analyzed in parallel to have the required number of replicates that is statistically valid. The results of wood macroscopic analyses will be translated into images by the xylotron from the US Partners: Drs. Wiemann and Hermanson, easy to use by customs and forest control officers. An updated anatomical identification key will be established and will facilitate identifications.

The objective of reducing species extinction risk by promoting ex-situ conservation at four sampling sites and/or protected areas is also ongoing. Field gene bank containing more than 10 000 living plants are now in the nurseries (Ambohidray, Tsitongambarika, Ampasindava and Marolambo) thanks to the collaboration with the protected area promoters and partners. Establishment and monitoring are particularly done by undergraduate students at Ambohidray.
Outreach and collaboration

All activities carried out by PEER team were planned and executed in close coordination with the other members of the Malagasy Precious Woods Consortium, i.e., colleagues working at the École Supérieure des Sciences Agronomiques (ESSA) Forêts of the University of Antananarivo, ETH Zurich, and the Missouri Botanical Garden Paris and Missouri. The list of target species should be narrowed down as much as possible to the species level and should not include entire groups at the genus level. All stakeholders met together in order to identify and to check the large trees. Twenty seven (27) Dalbergia species and 67 species of Diospyros, identified as large trees and having commercial value will be analyzed by using 3 identification methods: anatomy, NIRS and molecular. As the studied genera are very species-rich in Madagascar, continuing the efforts to analyze the established reference sample collection by all the members of the consortium is of utmost importance.

The U.S. partners, Mr. John Hermanson and Prof. Michael Wiemann from USDA accompanied by Coordinator for Environment, Science, Technology and Health in the Political/Economic Section at the U.S Embassy in Antananarivo, visited the Department of Plant Biology and Ecology from January 31st to February 8th, 2020. The five day visit included two days in the field in Ambohidray site, and three days were dedicated to training at the new xyloteque funded by USAID-PEER. Undergraduate students benefited from the exchanges with U.S. partners during their stay at Ambohidray, and wood biology researchers and PhD students from the ongoing projects attended the training. The US partners Dr. Wiemann and Dr Hermanson presented an introductory course covering the use of the XyloTron for species identification, including preparation of samples for the XyloTron, practice and implementation of the XyloTron tool at Customs. Two XyloTron with accessories were gifted to the Malagasy Precious wood consortium in order to ensure legal trade and to help strengthen control at ports.  The official handover of the two wood identification machines was honored by the president of University of Antananarivo and his staff.

Potential development impacts

The Laboratoire d’anatomie des plantes (LABAP) of the University of Antananarivo participated to the global xylaria survey organized by IAWA which is under “wood collections” on the homepage of IAWA website. Every curator may continuously update information for his xylarium at any time. All information will be used for research purposes and shared for all xylaria/IAWA members for better communications within wood anatomy research community. A worldwide wood collections is created and developed as a result of this PEER research project headed by Dr. Ravaomanalina, and her research will inform wood anatomy research community.

Future plans

The team plans to focus on the wood anatomy lab completion during  the upcoming 3-6 months. In the near future, the results of macroscopic analyses of wood will be translated into images by the Xylotron, a wood identification instrument developed by USG partners at USFS which will be  easy to use by customs and forest control officers. An updated anatomical identification key will be established and will facilitate identifications.

Back to PEER Cycle 7 Grant Recipients