Call to Save the Yellowwood - South Africa’s National Tree

The Wild Bird Trust has presented an open letter to the current president of South Africa, Dr Jacob Zuma, and African National Congress, asking the government to intervene in the management of indigenous forests and halt logging of yellowwood trees in South Africa.

We are not doing enough to protect and restore our national forests, and protecting the National Tree of South Africa, the Real Yellowwood needs to become one of our national priorities. Yellowwood trees reaching up to 2000 years old are valuable national assets of natural heritage significance.

One of the huge Outeniqua Yellow Wood trees, more than 650 years old, in the Diepwalle section of the Knysna forest

The Wild Bird Trust is Calling for:

  • An end to all harvesting of our national tree, the yellowwood
  • The establishment of a "South African Heritage Tree List"
  • Marking of all indigenous trees over 150 years old as protected on the proposed registry 
  • Funding to plant the first one million yellowwood trees
  • An overhaul of government forestry in South Africa
  • Investment in the restoration of these important forests

The Yellowwood Harvesting Problem

Only 350 years ago hundreds of thousands of huge yellowwood trees towered in the canopies of Afromontane and southern Afrotemperate yellowwood forests along the southern coast of South Africa, between George and Humansdorp, and through the Eastern Cape, Transkei, and the southern Drakensberg, all the way to Magoesbaskloof in the Limpopo Province.

"... we now sit with less than 10% of the yellowwood trees we had 350 years ago"

The number of remaining yellowwood trees is being reduced every year as indigenous forests shrink in size and height. The trees that are left behind are becoming ever younger and smaller in size, as the forests are being thinned out and invaded by alien vegetation.

The good news: Yellowwood trees in South Africa are protected under the National Forests Act, 1998, and may not be cut, damaged, destroyed or disturbed without a licence granted by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries.

The bad news: The permits for legal harvesting are allowing sawmills to continue to harvest a quota of yellowwood trees, most of which are said to be over 150 to 200 years old and therefore irreplaceable. This means between 20 to 100 large yellowwood trees are legally being felled each year in the Amathole region alone. Illegal felling is also a threat, with desperate communities in the Transkei using yellowwoods as firewood among other examples.

In King William’s Town and Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape yellowwood trees 200, or even 300 years old are being chopped up at sawmills.

"Yellowwood planks are now valued at up to R25,000 ($3,000) per cubic meter, an increase in value of over 400% in the last 6 years. This sets a high price for our natural heritage, as legal yellowwood timber is getting harder to source and prices are being driven even higher."

"Right now there are harvesting contractors targeting the last-remaining intact yellowwood forest patches, eroding our natural heritage every day that yellowwood extraction continues."

Only a handful of yellowwood trees older than 500 years stay standing today, in pockets of remote, degraded forests protected from logging by their inaccessible location, proud landowners and aware local foresters.

Jimfbleak at English WikipediaYellowwood on Garden Route - Jimfbleak at English Wikipedia

The Wild Bird Trust warns that legal and illegal logging will very soon destroy our national forests in South Africa.

"We have seen more yellowwood tree poaching in the last three years than in previous years and record the loss of important yellowwood trees every year."

The Yellowwood Conservation Solution

The Wild Bird Trust is proposing that trees in need of protection become presidential or “government trees”, calling for:

  • Protection and recognition of thousands of culturally, historically and ecologically important trees, by establishing the “South African Heritage Tree List”.
  • Establishment of a task team to locate, sample and mark all “Heritage Trees” with a presidential seal to protect them from harvesting in the future.
  • A zero tolerance and zero harvesting quota under all circumstances, for the Outeniqua yellowwood and real yellowwood across South Africa.
  • Promote indigenous forestry as a viable economic driver in rural communities, through carbon trading, harvesting and utilizing alien plants for gain, and establishing long-term tree-planting programs with non-profit NGOs.

Sign the Petition to protect irreplaceable yellowwood trees in South Africa.

Geogypsy Tsitsikamma Big Tree - Geogypsy

More from the Open Letter to Stop Yellowwood Felling

"What is incomprehensible about all this is that much of this trade is being done legally. The technical report on the “Yellowwood Harvesting Quotas for the Eastern Cape” allows a quota of 600 cubic meters of yellowwood timber from dead or dying yellowwood trees in the Amathole Mountains each year.

Unbelievably every year 50 or more large yellowwood trees are marked for extraction by government foresters. From the perspective of the harvesting contractors with 70-year permits to cut yellowwood trees, the yellowwood harvesting quotas are almost impossible to use, as trees suitable for harvesting are very rare (i.e. dead trees or trees with at leas 75% of the canopy dead).

Some people have turned to ring-barking or even poisoning yellowwood trees. For example, we have found evidence yellowwood trees poisoned with diesel to kill them for harvesting the next year. The new government-endorsed yellowwood harvesting protocols actually support the targeting of healthier yellowwood trees than before due to contractors complaining about poor timber quality.

The technical report uses inappropriate sample plots in unsuitable locations to justify ongoing harvesting of both yellowwood tree species. It is clear that there is a need for better record-keeping and annual auditing of annual yellowwood harvesting quotas. We need external auditors to make sure that healthy yellowwood trees are not being marked and felled."

The Importance of Yellowwoods

"Emergent yellowwoods are to Afromontane forest patches and the mountains, what coral reefs and pinnacles are to the ocean"

  • Habitat for a variety of birds - including forest specialists such as the endemic Cape Parrot, the elusive Narina Trogon, rarely seen Bush Blackcap, the barbets, woodpeckers, turacos, hornbills, and many others
  • A symbol of national pride and our legacy to future generations -  as the national tree of South Africa
  • Historic importance - the yellowwood family is primaeval and has been present in South Africa for over 100 million years
  • Upliftment of poor rural communities depending on indigenous forests
  • Important sources of carbon and part of our national biodiversity
  • Villages, towns and cities depend on goods and services from these indigenous forests

Rodnick Clifton Biljon - Cape Parrot ProjectCape Parrot - Rodnick Clifton Biljon - Cape Parrot Project

Cape parrots number less than 1,000 in the willd and require urgent conservation actions. We need to restore degraded forest habitat and provide temporary solutions to existing problems like nest boxes to supplement the availability of suitable nest cavities. (Rodnick Clifton Biljon)

Where's the Real Yellowwood Found?

These now rare trees are native to the southern and eastern parts of South Africa, from coastal areas in the Western Cape through to KwaZulu-Natal and north into the eastern Limpopo Province. Natural pockets of yellowwoods are also found further north in and around Zimbabwe. Yellowwoods can be found from Table Mountain in Cape Town, along the southern and eastern Cape coastline, in the Drakensberg Mountains and up into the Soutpansberg and Blouberg in Limpopo.

Visit our Big Yellowwood Trees

The "Tsitsikamma Big Tree" - along the N2 highway in the Tsitsikamma forests of the Garden Route, along with other remnants of the impressive old-growth forests that once existed here.

  • Towering over the forest canopy this is the oldest of the Tsitsikamma yellowwoods - estimated at between 600 and 800 years old, standing 36,6 meters tall with a trunk circumference of 9 meters.

 CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsOuteniqua yellowwood - CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The “Eastern Monarch” or “Hogsback Big Tree” - in the Aukland Forest Reserve near Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

  • The last tree between 1000 and 1500 years old in the Amathole Mountain Range, 36,6 meters high with a girth of 9,3 meters.

Stu on Going Homeless ProjectHogsback Big Tree - Stu on Going Homeless Project

More from the Wild Bird Trust

The Wild Bird Trust works with local communities to plant and grow indigenous trees and supports the core vision in the “Amathole Forest Yellowwood Harvesting Levels” technical report by DAFF: 

“Forests are managed for people and we need to create an enabling environment for economic and social development through sustainable forestry, especially at the local level”. 

The NGO is calling to "repurpose the role played by both DAFF and DEA in indigenous forest management to atone for the catastrophic damage done to our national forests by previous regimes, marginalized local communities, and colonial powers".

Read the full letter on National Geographic.


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