Vanishing Acts: Big-Leaf Mahogany

By James Moody

Big-Leaf Mahogany

Big-Leaf Mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla, is native to Central and South America, growing from southern Mexico to north-central Bolivia. The Big-Leaf Mahogany is a massive timber tree which can attain heights of 100 to 130 feet while having a circumference of nearly 15 feet. For over five hundred years this tree has been sought after for its density, strength, and beautiful deep red color. Big-Leaf Mahogany makes for superior timber which is used in the manufacturing of high quality furniture and musical instruments.
Big-Leaf Mahogany is found in all types of forest, from the edge of the pine savannah to the climax rainforest, but is found mostly in mixed hardwood forest belts along riverbanks. The big-leaf mahogany provides vital habitat for the endangered giant otter. The harvesting of mahogany trees has led to widespread and extremely damaging soil erosion along the banks of the streams and rivers the otters call home.
The native range of this tree has been greatly reduced. Deforestation has cut the range of these trees by 60% in Central America and by 30% in South America. Bolivia, once the world’s largest producer, has nearly run out of mahogany to log. The big-leaf mahogany is nearly extinct in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, while it is in severe decline in several other South and Central American countries. Efforts to grow this tree in plantation settings have been for the most part unsuccessful therefore making trees in their natural forest setting very susceptible to being illegally cut.

Big-leaf mahogany has been protected under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna since 2003. This convention restricts international trade in wood from the Central and South American populations of the species. Despite its protected status, illegal logging has continued and mahogany remains in danger of having its numbers further reduced.

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Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed and produced by The Morton Arboretum in association with the Global Trees Campaign, a partnership between Fauna and Flora International and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

Funding for this exhibit comes from The Morton Arboretum and the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, Museums for America Grant Program.

Support locally comes from LG&E and KU. Additional support provided by Shepherdsville/Bullitt County Tourism.

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