Rejuvenation of msandarusi can invigorate the national economy

Rejuvenation of msandarusi can invigorate the national economy

IN Tanzania, these days, the East African gum copal tree, (Hymenaea verrucosa, msandarusi) is uncommon. In Dar es Salaam region, where it is believed to have once been the dominant tree, it is rare, having been practically wiped out locally. 

I used to say that the one I planted in my garden in 2008, was the first to live in Dar es Salaam region since the end of the 1940’s. Then people told me that there are a few left in the hills in the back of the University of Dar es Salaam and in the graveyard in Gongo la Mboto, but I haven’t been able to find them.

In my garden the msandarusi is not the biggest tree, or the fastest growing, but it seems to be the boss tree.  All others (Ficus sur, Baphia kirkii, Pandanus kirkii, and Afzelia quanzensis) are bending away, giving it room to flourish

Why care?  

Gum copal is used to make high quality varnish; it makes the varnish smooth and waterproof. It is also used as an ingredient in adhesives, perfumes, printing ink, paints, and films. Because of its lovely smell and low burning point, gum copal is also often used as incense.

Formerly, it was an economic powerhouse. In the 1800’s Zanzibar was the world’s chief supplier of ivory, cloves, and gum copal. During German colonial times Dar es Salaam was the leading port of export; 100 to 300 tons of gum copal were shipped every year from 1888 to 1907.  Until the 1940’s, gum copal was an important trading commodity, from which time it was no longer traded.

How much is it worth? To answer that question I went onto the web and found many different prices and grades of gum copal. Overall its price has increased dramatically in the last few years.  A low average price is 25,000/- per 100 grams; a lowest price for a ton is 1.5m/-.

What happened?

It’s not clear exactly why this beautiful tree disappeared. But surely it was harvested poorly, greedily. At first the gum was found in clumps on the ground, near the roots. Commonly it appears in fissures in the bark or places that are damaged, and even more is under the bark.

 I believe that people killed the trees by damaging the roots and tearing off the bark in order to take all the gum, rather than patiently collecting the gum sustainably. At the same time the Greater and Small-eared Galagos (bushbabies, komba) disappeared – we never hear their call in Dar es Salaam region any more – some of them were dependent on the gum for food.

Let’s revive this incredible tree, indigenous to coastal East Africa. It may well by a key stone species.  If we do that, we can revive the gum copal industry. We know now it is important to be wise, and harvest it carefully.

It could be collected in Tanzania (employment for vijana!), and processed here into the world’s highest quality varnish. Instead of importing incense, Tanzania could produce its own. This tree species can once again contribute to the national economic wellbeing.

 Not only that, bushbabies, who are dependent on the gum as a food could return; how wonderful it would be to hear bushbabies with their strange calls, making the night mysterious and wild. The way to do all that is to plant this beautiful tree.

One of the difficulties of this plant is, and perhaps an important reason it has not revived by itself, is that msandarusi does not seem easy to propagate. From 4 seeds given to me by Gloria Mawji in 2008, one grew into a tree. Of 80 seedlings brought to me by Yahya Abeid (plant collector extraordinaire) from a graveyard near Saadani, only 8 are surviving. And there are so few known living trees that even Tanzania Tree Seed does not have seeds for sale.

But here at Nature Notebook, we have seeds!  If you have a place in its natural habitat, within 30 kilometers from the East African coast, or on the nearby Indian Ocean islands, to grow such a beautiful and important tree, and want to try, send an email to anneoutwater@yahoo.com.  We will send you seeds for free. Let’s do it!


Gum copal comes in a range of colors – from white to black. Here it is resting on the unique leaf, a pair of leaflets.