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Terry C.H. Sunderland


Four genera of rattan palms, represented by 20 species, occur in West and Central Africa. In common with their Asian relatives, the rattans of Africa form an integral part of subsistence strategies for many rural populations as well as providing the basis of a thriving cottage industry. Although many of the African rattan species are used locally for a multiplicity of purposes, the commercial trade concentrates on the bulk harvest of only a few widespread and relatively common species.

African rattans have long been recognised by donor agencies and national governments as having a potential role to play on the world market as well as a great role within the regional Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) sector of Africa. However, the development of the rattan resource in Africa has until recently, been hindered by a lack of basic knowledge about the exact species used, their ecological requirements and the social context of their utilisation. Hence it has not been possible to design appropriate management strategies that might be implemented to ensure their sustainable, and equitable, exploitation. As increased interest is being shown in the potential role of high value NTFPs to contribute to the conservation and development paradigm, rattan has been one of the frequently mentioned products that could be developed and promoted in a meaningful way. Recent research has concentrated on the provision of information on the taxonomy, ecology and utilisation of these taxa. Now that this baseline information is available, rattan research in Africa is now concentrating of the development and promotion of the rattan resource from both ecological and socio-economic perspectives.

1. A brief introduction to the biology of African rattans

1.1 Morphological distinctness from the Asian rattans

In Africa, there are 20 species of rattan, representing four genera that are relatively easy to differentiate, particularly through the morphology of their climbing organs (Sunderland, 2000). Calamoid palms climb with the aid of two main organs; they may either have a flagellum or possess a cirrus. Flagella only occur in certain species of Calamus, including C. deërratus, the sole representative of Calamus in Africa. The flagellum arises directly from the sheath and is regarded as a modified inflorescence (Fisher and Dransfield, 1977; Dransfield, 1978; Baker et al., 1999). Indeed, inflorescences of C. deërratus are flagellate.

The remaining taxa within the Calamoideae, particularly those of Asian origin, climb with the aid of a cirrus, a whip-like extension at the distal end of the leaf rachis armed with short, recurved thorns that often resemble a cat's claw (Tomlinson, 1990). However, the three rattan genera endemic to Africa, Laccosperma, Eremospatha and Oncocalamus, possess a vegetative morphology unique within the Calamoideae in that the cirrus is actually a marked extension between the distal leaflets rather than beyond them. The leaflets are present as reduced, reflexed thorn-like organs termed acanthophylls. This structure is also present in some members of the unrelated genera present only in the new world: Chamaedorea (sub-family Ceroxyloxideae; tribe Hyophorbeae) and Desmoncus (sub-family Arecoideae; tribe Cocoeae) (Uhl and Dransfield, 1987).

In common with other members of the genus, Calamus deërratus possesses female inflorescences where the flowers are arranged in pairs comprising a fertile female flower and a sterile male flower, while the male infloresecnce has rows of solitary flowers. The inflorescence units of the endemic rattan genera of Africa are quite distinct. For example the genera Eremospatha and Laccosperma have pairs of hermaphroditic flowers4. Although pairs of unisexual flowers are a common feature within the Calamoideae, the dyad composed of hermaphroditic flowers is unique to Eremospatha and Laccosperma within the Palmae and is considered to be an unspecialised form of flower arrangement (Uhl and Dransfield, 1987; Baker et al., 1999).

In addition, the flower cluster of Oncocalamus is distinctive and complex, not only within the Calamoideae, but also within the Palmae as a whole. Oncocalamus is monoecious, and the flower cluster consists of a central 1-3 female flowers with two lateral groups subtended by a single bract, with each group bearing basal 1-3 female flowers and 3-5 distal male flowers. The unusual flower cluster of the African taxa, and Oncocalamus, in particular, suggests that a complex evolution of the Calamoideae has occurred on the African with much extinction, caused by dramatic climatic upheaval, leaving only isolated lineages. The speciation patterns exhibited today by African palms, in that they have a distinct Guineo-Congolian centre of diversity, probably due to the maintenance and later speciation of forest refugia during periods of these climatic changes, supports this assertion.

1.2 Cane anatomy

Anatomical studies of three of the four (Laccosperma, Eremospatha and Calamus) African genera have recently been undertaken in Ghana (Oteng-Amoako and Ebanyele, in press). The initial results of the study suggest that the thickness of the fibre walls, the proportion of fibre tissues and metaxylem vessel diameter differ significantly between the genera, hence influencing the relative utility of the members of each.

The relatively higher proportion of thick-walled fibres and narrower diameter of metaxylem vessels suggests that the genus Laccosperma has a greater density and hence strength properties than the canes of Eremospatha and Calamus deërratus. These latter taxa have a relatively higher proportion of thinner wall fibres and larger metaxylem vessels, which contribute to greater void volume of the stems resulting in lower density and strength (ibid.). The study also revealed that fibre wall thickness, fibre proportion and metaxylem diameter, which are the likely determinants of rattan quality, do not differ significantly between Calamus and Eremospatha and therefore these genera are included within the same density and strength groupings. These findings concur with those of Wiener and Liese (1994) who additionally examined material of Oncocalamus. This latter genus was found to have very thin fibre walls and very large metaxylem vessels and possessed the least desirable properties of density and strength of any of the African rattans.

These anatomical conclusions generally correspond with those of researchers of rattan utilisation in Africa. It is generally accepted that the large-diameter species of Laccosperma are particularly durable, whilst Oncocalamus is particularly weak and brittle and, as such, is not commonly valued as a source of cane (Profizi, 1986; Defo, 1997; Defo, 1999; Sunderland, 1999a; 1999b). However, it is surprising that Eremospatha and Calamus are found to be anatomically similar, and hence share similar cane properties, as most workers note that Calamus deërratus is considered of inferior quality to that of the desired species of Eremospatha and is only utilised in the absence of other species. Further anatomical studies, which are currently under way, might shed more light on this anomaly.

2. Ecology and distribution

Rattans in Africa are widespread throughout West and Central Africa and are a common component of the forest flora. Some species, such as Laccosperma secundiflorum and Eremospatha macrocarpa, have large ranges and occur from Liberia to Angola, whilst Calamus deërratus is particularly widely distributed and occurs from the Gambia, across to Kenya and southwards to Zambia. In terms of diversity, the greatest concentration of rattan species, along with the highest levels of endemism, are found in the Guineo-Congolian forests of Central Africa. Eighteen of the 20 known African rattan species occur in Cameroon; the "hinge" of Africa. The diversity of rattans in the Upper Guinea forests, by comparison, is somewhat poor with only seven species, none of which are endemic to that region.

Within this forest zone, rattans occur in a wide range of ecological conditions. The majority of the species occur naturally in closed tropical forests and are early gap colonisers. Because of this, many of the taxa are extremely light demanding and respond well to a limited reduction in the forest canopy. Increases in forest disturbance, such as through selective logging activity encourages the regeneration of rattans and these palms are often a common feature along logging roads and skid trails. For some taxa such as some species of Oncocalamus, their light-demanding nature is such that they are often the earliest colonisers of heavily disturbed areas. Other species of rattan, notably Calamus deërratus, grow in permanently and seasonally inundated forest or swamps, whilst other species, such as Laccosperma opacum and L. laeve, are highly shade-tolerant and prefer to grow under the forest canopy.

The seed of most rattans in Africa are dispersed predominantly by hornbills (Whitney et al., 1998). However, primates, predominantly the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus) and mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) along with elephants (Gartlan, pers. comm.; White and Abernethy, 1997; Sunderland, 2000) are also key dispersal agents. The seeds are often scattered far from the mother plant. Limited predation, and sometimes catching by rodents accounts for some additional, although limited, dispersal. Interestingly, significant germination also occurs near to the parent plants through natural fruit fall, particularly in areas where over-hunting has led to a significant decline in faunal dispersal agents. After germination, rattan seedlings can remain on the forest floor for some time waiting for the optimum light conditions needed to begin the long journey to the canopy. Interestingly, despite intensive field work and herbarium collection in the past three years, there appears to be no obvious phenological pattern to flower development and seed production for the majority of the species.

3. The resource base

Although numerous studies have concentrated on evaluating the local importance of rattan in Africa, very few have attempted to adequately define the resource base. However, it is now known that the utilisation of rattan to supply the thriving cottage industry is limited to a few species (Sunderland, in press). Table 1 (below) presents the major commercial species of rattan utilised in each region.

4. Conservation Status of African Rattans

It is reported that the demand for rattan is increasing and much greater amount of cane is being processed in many areas of Africa today than was being worked five or ten years ago (Morakinyo, 1995; Ndoye, 1994; Falconer, 1994; Townson, 1995; Trefon and Defo, 1998; Defo, 1997; Sunderland, 1998; Defo, 1999; Sunderland 1999a; 1999b; Kialo, 1999; Minga, in press; Holbech, 2000; Sunderland et al., in press; Oteng-Amoako and Obiri-Darko, in press). This has led to a

Table 1. Commercially important rattan species by region


Commercially utilised species

West Africa (Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, W. Nigeria)

*Laccosperma secundiflorum (P. Beauv.) Kuntze

*Eremospatha macrocarpa (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.

Eremospatha hookeri (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.

Calamus deërratus (G. Mann & H. Wendl.)

West/Central Africa (E. Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, E. Guinea)

Laccosperma secundiflorum (P. Beauv.) Kuntze

*Laccosperma robustum (Burr.) J. Dransf.

*Eremospatha macrocarpa (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.

Central Africa (DR Congo, Central African Republic)

*Laccosperma robustum (Burr.) J. Dransf.

*Eremospatha haullevilleana de Wild.

Eremospatha macrocarpa (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.

Southern/Eastern Africa (Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania)

*Calamus deërratus G. Mann & H. Wendl.

*Eremospatha haullevilleana de. Wild.

* Indicates primary commercial species

Table 2. The conservation status of African rattan species


Geographical range (km²)

IUCN Category

Calamus deërratus G. Mann & H. Wendl.


Not threatened

Eremospatha barendii sp. nov.

One collection only


E. cabrae de Wild.


Not threatened

E. cuspidata (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.


Not threatened

E. haullevilleana de Wild.


Not threatened

E. hookeri (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.


Not threatened

E. laurentii de Wild.


Not threatened

E. macrocarpa (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.


Not threatened

E. quinquecostulata Becc.



E. tessmanniana Becc.



E. wendlandiana Dammer ex Becc.


Not threatened

Laccosperma acutiflorum (Becc.) J. Dransf.


Not threatened

L. laeve (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.


Not threatened

L. opacum (G. Mann & H. Wendl.) Drude


Not threatened

L. robustum (Burr.) J. Dransf.


Not threatened

L. secundiflorum (P. Beauv.) Kuntze


Not threatened

Oncocalamus macrospathus Burr.


Not threatened

O. mannii (H. Wendl.) H. Wendl.


Not threatened

O. sp. nov. (`Vuley')



O. wrightianus Hutch.



significant decline in wild stocks and has resulted in considerable local scarcity. This scarcity and the associated irregular supply of unprocessed rattan have been identified as one of the major constraints to the continued development of the industry.

In this regard, now that the taxonomic base of the African rattan sector has been established (Sunderland, 2000) it is now possible to determine the global conservation status of each species. This has been calculated using the standard IUCN conservation categories where among other criteria, geographical limits in species distribution are used to determine the conservation status.

5. The African Rattan Trade

During the colonial period, there existed a significant trade in cane and cane products in Africa. In particular, Cameroon and Gabon supplied France and its colonies (Hédin, 1929), and Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) supplied a significant proportion of the large UK market during the inter-war period (Anon, 1934). The export industry was not restricted to raw cane and in 1928 alone over 250,000 FF worth of finished cane furniture was exported from Cameroon to Senegal for the expatriate community there (Hédin, 1929). More recently, an initiative promoted by UNIDO in Senegal was exploiting wild cane for a large-scale production and export (Douglas, 1974), although this enterprise folded not long after its establishment due to problems securing a regular supply of raw material.

Table 3. Raw rattan cane exports from Douala and Kribi to France 1926 to 1928

(modified from Hédin, 1929)


Tonnes Exported

Value (FF)








1928 (Douala)



1928 (Kribi)



6. The nature of the trade

The conditions and circumstances under which rattan is harvested and transported in Africa are remarkably consistent throughout its range. The majority of the harvesting for commercial trading is undertaken by individuals usually farmers or hunters, or other rural people primarily involved in other occupations. Rattan harvesting provides many of these individuals with extra revenue, particularly in times of need such as for medical expenses or the payment of annual school fees (Trefon and Defo, 1998; Sunderland, 1998). Many cash-crop farmers also harvest rattan to obtain extra capital to purchase chemicals, planting stock and other necessary items for their primary occupation (ibid.). Despite the recognised capital returns of rattan harvest and sale, the unpleasant and difficult nature of rattan harvesting means that most harvesters state they would prefer to concentrate on their primary occupations given the opportunity.

In general, rattan harvesters tend to work in the same forest area, and return each time they need to cut cane. If the harvester is not an indigene of the area, the chief of the local village is paid a small retainer for providing access to the forest. The harvesters usually prefer to collect as close to a motorable road as possible to avoid head-portering the bundled canes too far. However, local scarcity near many urban centres now forces many harvesters further into the forest (Sunderland, 1998; Defo, 1999; Profizi, 1999). The added porterage resulting from this increased range is slowly generating an increase in the raw cane prices, which is being felt at the market level.

Village-based harvesters transport the harvested rattan to the urban markets themselves, or they may sell at the village to a local trader who then transport the cane for sale to urban artisans. Some urban-based artisans harvest rattan themselves, although this is often only the case where there is close proximity to the wild resource. Falconer (1994), and Oteng-Amoako and Obiri-Darko (in press) provide a good overview of the production to consumption system of rattan in Ghana, as do Defo (1999) and Sunderland et al. (in press) for Cameroon.

Although many of the commercial species of rattan respond well to selective logging activities, logging has also resulted in increased rattan exploitation. The development of a wide network of logging roads throughout many forest areas in West and Central Africa has enabled greater access to otherwise inaccessible areas of forest. Indeed, the logging trucks themselves are often known to be responsible for the transport of harvested rattan (Defo, 1997; Sunderland, 1998).

Indigenous management systems for the rattan resource in Africa are unknown, and, throughout its range, rattan is considered an "open-access" resource; there are very few, if any customary laws regulating the harvest of rattan from the wild. This is also mirrored in the national legislation for most countries. Those States that require the exploitation of forest products to be governed by the issue of licenses and permits, often do not adequately monitor the exploitation of these resources, nor receive the full forestry taxes related to that exploitation. In general though, many national forestry codes still do not include the exploitation of non-timber forest products in their regulations and the over-harvesting of many commercially important products, including rattan, continues unabated and uncontrolled. However, as will be discussed, these legislative and institutional constraints to sustainability are currently being addressed.

Figure 1. Generalized "production-to-consumption" system for rattan in Africa



7. Amount and Value of the Trade

Large quantities of raw cane enter the urban centres of West and Central Africa each day (Morakinyo, 1995; Ndoye, 1994; Falconer, 1994; Townson, 1995; Trefon and Defo, 1998; Defo, 1997; Sunderland, 1998; Defo, 1999; Sunderland, 1999a; 1999b; Kialo, 1999; Minga, in press; Holbech, 2000; Sunderland et al., in press; Oteng-Amoako and Obiri-Darko, in press). Table 4 (below) summarises the findings of some of these studies where quantification of field data has been possible.

Table 4. The scale and value of the African rattan trade in selected urban markets

City (country)

Population (sample size)

Estimated amount of cane used / month (m)

Estimated mean annual value



Lagos (Nigeria)


(not known)

180,000 m


Morakinyo (1994)

Accra (Ghana)


(27 enterprises)

not known


Falconer (1994)

Kumasi (Ghana)


(11 enterprises)

not known


Falconer (1994)

Ankasa (Ghana)

Not known

(12 markets)

4,300m (all species)


Holbech (2000)

Bata (Equatorial Guinea)


(15 enterprises)

20,550m (all species)


Sunderland (1998)

Douala (Cameroon)


(25 enterprises)

26,955m (large dia.)

28,875m (small dia.)


Sunderland et al., (in press)

Yaounde (Cameroon)


(31 enterprises)

23,165m (large dia.)

29,765m (small dia.)


Sunderland et al., (in press)

Kinshasa (DR Congo)


(114 enterprises)

13,760m (large dia.)

14,448m (small dia.)


Minga (in press)

8. Processing and Transformation

Processing of raw cane essentially entails the removal of the epidermis (skin) from the stem and the drying of the raw cane prior to its use. Immature stems, or the very apex of mature stems, where the leaf sheath is also present are not used, and are often left or discarded at the time of harvest. The processing of raw cane throughout much of Africa is undertaken manually, with the stems being scraped with kitchen knives to remove the skin followed by drying, usually undertaken in the open air. This rudimentary means of processing is not only labour intensive, but also results in inferior quality cane being available for artisan use and hence limits the value of the finished products. This inferior quality has also led to speculation that the quality of cane in Africa inherently poor (Dransfield, pers.comm.). However, this speculation has not been supported by thorough anatomical studies and it is possible that if processed and transformed more efficiently cane from Africa could, in terms of quality, rival that of Asia.

There are also long-term conservation benefits from improved methods of processing and transformation. Most notable of these is the fact that a more durable and longer lasting product will ensure that less cane needs to be continually harvested from the wild. In addition, from the social perspective the advantages of urban artisans producing better quality products are clear and directly relate to the current DFID initiative of ensuring the valorisation of forest products contribute to overall poverty alleviation.

In this respect, there are currently initiatives to introduce appropriate processing and transformation technology from Asia that are suitable for the African milieu (Sunderland and Nkefor, 1999). A model processing unit has recently been constructed in Limbe, Cameroon and will be used primarily as a training and will function as a demonstration unit. Similar units will be established in Ghana and Nigeria over the course of the next two years.

9. Discussion: Manifold Routes to Sustainability

The sustainable harvesting and management of the African rattan resource is primarily hindered by a paucity of a sound information on stocking, growth, yield and harvest intensity. In addition, the lack of adequate land and resource tenure precludes many attempts at long-term and sustainable harvesting and the fact that rattan is considered an "open-access" resource throughout much of its range mitigates the prospects for long-term sustainable management. However, a number of research strategies are currently being developed to address these shortfalls in baseline information and institutional and social constraints.

The harvesting techniques employed in the extraction of rattan in Africa, and which are generally the same despite the considerable geographic variation on the continent, have an impact on potential sustainability. Particularly for clustering species, the mature stems selected for harvest are those without lower leaves (i.e. where the leaf sheaths have sloughed off) and usually only the basal 10-20m is harvested; the upper "green" part of the cane is too soft and inflexible for transformation and is often left in the canopy. In many instances, all the stems in a cluster may be cut in order to obtain access to the mature stems; even those that are not yet mature enough for exploitation and sale. This is particularly an issue where resource tenure is uncertain or weak.

However, where resource tenure is somewhat more clearly defined, younger stems, are not removed and are left to regenerate and provide future sources of cane, usually on a 2-3 year rotation. Despite the fact that this example of better "stool management" relies on adequate land and resource tenure, there is considerable reason for optimism in the African context. Currently there is a significant paradigm shift from the management of forest resources being controlled by the State to those of community-based management regimes. Formal legislation in this regard is now being developed and implemented in many rattan-producing countries. Through the empowerment of forest communities in this way there is significant potential to ensure the long-term sustainable, and equitable, exploitation of a wide range of forest resources, not only rattan.

Rattans are currently harvested exclusively from wild populations in Africa. Unlike some areas of Southeast Asia where rattan is traditionally cultivated as part of mixed gardens by sedentary cultivators, or is planted in recently-burned forest by shifting cultivators (Godoy, 1992), no known similar cultivation practices exist in West and Central Africa. However, the ecological and social factors prevalent here are favourable to the development of a cultivated and managed rattan resource.

In this regard, recent research by the African Rattan Research Programme has concentrated on aspects of seed storage and pre-treatments. The material made available by these trials has led to the recent establishment of an experimental silvicultural trial. The trial consists of a 1-hectare plot of Laccosperma secundiflorum, planted beneath obsolete rubber and has been undertaken in collaboration with the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC). Further community-based trials, within the legislative context of community forest management, have also recently been established in Cameroon, soon to be followed by similar initiatives in Ghana and Nigeria. These latter trials are concentrating on the introduction of rattans into agroforestry systems and enrichment planting of farmbush and secondary forest. Annual growth rates as well as the economic viability of these cultivation systems are currently being monitored and assessed.

Recent initiatives aimed at introducing certification schemes for NTFP resources as well as for timber, also have potential for the sustainable management of the rattan resource in both Africa and Asia. Recent guidelines for the criteria for the certification of rattans have recently been developed by Sunderland and Dransfield (in press).

10. Conclusion

As essential biological, ecological and socio-economic information on the African rattan resource becomes available and suitable strategies to ensure sustainability are implemented, there is significant potential for the rattans of Africa to contribute significantly not only to the regional development of the resource, but also to the thriving global market. Through applied forest management regimes, and through the development of community-based management supported by appropriate legislation, African rattans could provide a real opportunity for the meaningful, and sustainable, development of rural areas and, potentially, for forest conservation through extractive management.

Figure 5: Rattan stems for river transport by rafts (Siebert)


I would like to thank the Central African Regional Programme for the Environment (CARPE), the United States Forest Service and the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan for funding the first phase (1996-2000) of the African Rattan Research Programme. The programme is now currently funded by the Forestry Research Programme (FRP) of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) under grant number R7636 ZF0139.


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Whitney, K.D., M.K. Fogiel, A.M. Lamperti, K.M. Holbrook, D.M. Stauffer, B.D. Hardesty, V.T. Parker, and T.B. Smith, 1998. Seed dispersal by Ceratogymna hornbills in the Dja Reserve, Cameroon. J. Trop. Ecol. 14: 351-371

4 Less commonly, Laccosperma may also possess triads of flowers.

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