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A one-stop location for information on big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla, Meliaceae)


Big-leaf mahogany was granted international regulatory protection by its listing on CITES Appendix II in late 2002. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, is a UN-chartered agreement signed by 175 nations whose objective is to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten species survival (link). CITES member nations meet every two to three years to consider the trade and conservation status of internationally traded wildlife. The Convention offers three levels of regulatory protection for endangered species:

Mahogany crown, Acre field site, Brazil.
Mahogany Crown
Mahogany crown, Acre field site, Brazil.

By the early 1990s, international concern was growing over the commercial and conservation status of big-leaf mahogany throughout its natural range. Both Swietenia humilis and Swietenia mahagoni, the other two Neotropical mahoganies, were listed on Appendix II by 1992 in recognition that commercial supplies of these species no longer existed in the wild. A growing body of reports indicated that industrial logging of big-leaf mahogany was in turn pushing the third Swietenia to commercial extinction across large portions of its natural range. Field studies in Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil provided evidence that mahogany’s regeneration strategies were incompatible with conventional selective logging practices, leading to regeneration failures after logging. Government regulatory capacity in remote Amazonian regions where most supplies originated after 1970 was too weak to control the logging sector specializing in locating and extracting mahogany from previously unlogged primary forests. Underlying these ‘facts on the ground’ were mahogany’s extremely high export value relative to other internationally traded tropical timber species, and consistently strong international demand, especially from the US and Europe.

The first proposal to list big-leaf mahogany on CITES Appendix II, submitted by Costa Rica and the USA, was considered at the 8th Convention of the Parties (CoP8) in 1992 in Kyoto, Japan. The proposal failed to garner two-thirds majority support necessary for listing from voting members at CoP8 and thus failed. At CoP9 in 1994 in Fort Lauderdale, USA, a second attempt to list mahogany on Appendix II, this time proposed by the Netherlands, also failed, as did a third attempt in 1997 at CoP10 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Costa Rica unilaterally listed mahogany on Appendix III in 1995, followed by Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil in 1997 and Colombia and Peru in 2000.

These listing proposals were fiercely contested. Mahogany’s vast natural range and logistical difficulties associated with studying natural populations in remote regions where the logging industry had not yet eliminated commercial populations made it difficult for the scientific community to reach a concensus on mahogany’s status. The logging industry and range nation governments, especially in South America where most international supplies originated after 1970, exploited this lack of concensus to defeat each listing proposal. Meanwhile a series of international conferences, publications, and CITES-sponsored Working Groups convened to debate the merits of international regulation. These included:

Mahogany with local guide near Feijó, Acre, Brazil.
Mahogany Base
Mahogany with local guide near Feijó, Acre, Brazil.

In the meantime, pressure mounted for mahogany’s inclusion on Appendix II as the Appendix III listings (see above) failed to ensure that internationally traded volumes of mahogany represented legal supplies. Mahogany’s Appendix III status required that listing nations issue CITES Export Permits through their Management Authorities verifying that exports were obtained in accordance with national forest legislation. The original Appendix III listing by Costa Rica in 1995 additionally required mahogany exports from other range nations to be accompanied by certificates of origin identifying the country where shipments were harvested. As well, CITES Authorities in consumer nations had to verify that imported volumes were accompanied by appropriate documentation, depending on the country of origin. The Appendix III listings by six range nations between 1997 and 2000 improved monitoring of trade data, and compliance was apparently widespread among range and consumer nations.

However, a crisis in Brazil in late 2001 demonstrated that illegal harvests continued. There, the Brazilian government banned the harvest, processing, and export of mahogany after discovery of widespread fraud within both the logging industry and regulatory agencies responsible for enforcing forest legislation and verifying legality of supply. Some shipments of Brazilian mahogany to the USA in 2002 were returned after successful legal challenges to the authenticity of CITES Export Permits accompanying them. The decline in Brazilian and Bolivian supplies during the late 1990s, and the shutdown of Brazilian exports in 2001, were mirrored by a dramatic spike in exports from Peru, where weak regulatory capacity was unable to stem a tide of illegal extraction in the Amazonian administrative department of Madre de Dios.

At the 12th Convention of Parties (CoP12) held in November 2002 in Santiago, Chile, CITES member nations voted 68–30 to include mahogany on Appendix II. The Appendix II listing requires cooperation between producer and consumer nations to verify that internationally traded individuals or volumes of listed species are harvested legally and in a manner non-detrimental to their role in ecosystems where they naturally occur. Though 12 other timber species had already been listed on Appendix II by 2002, mahogany was the first heavily traded species to receive this level of protection under CITES before commercial extirpation of natural stocks could occur. The decision recognized that international intervention was necessary to control illegal harvests and to maintain viable populations across mahogany’s natural range from Mexico to Bolivia. The listing went into full effect in November 2003.

The 2002 listing proposal for mahogany can be viewed here. The CoP12 decision can be viewed here under ‘Amendments adopted’.

Mahogany stump, Rio Envira, Acre, Brazil.
Mahogany Base
Mahogany stump, Rio Envira, Acre, Brazil.

The Appendix II listing interposed an additional layer of regulatory control, beyond the issue of legality, between mahogany and international markets. It requires each range nation’s CITES Scientific Authority to verify through ‘non-detriment finding’ (NDF) that mahogany’s export as sawn timber would not be detrimental to its survival “at a level consistent with its role in the ecosystems in which it occurs” (CITES Art. IV.3). Export is possible only when NDF has been made and the exporting nation’s CITES Management Authority determines that specimens or volumes of listed species were obtained in a manner consistent with national laws for the management and protection of flora and fauna, as under Appendix III. Protocols for determining NDF and legality are established by individual range nations. CITES Authorities in consumer nations must in turn verify that imports are accompanied by valid Appendix II documentation. In mahogany’s case, logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets, and plywood were covered by the 2002 Appendix II listing; domestic consumption within range nations, and plantation production from countries outside its natural range – principally Fiji and Indonesia – were not.

Of course, listing mahogany on CITES Appendix II did not magically solve all the problems with overexploitation and illegal international trade. While Brazilian supplies remained essentially shut down while the forest products industry adjusted to new federal regulations monitoring mahogany harvests established in 2003, the flood of mahogany exiting Peru since the listing raised questions about the legality and sustainability of harvests there (see Readings & Links > Grogan & Schulze 2008; also Grogan_HR1497.pdf). A series of CITES-related conferences and meetings followed, including:

Reports and other documents from several of these meetings and workshops can be downloaded here and here.


Blundell AG & Gullison RE (2003) Poor regulatory capacity limits the ability of science to influence the management of mahogany. Forest Policy and Economics 5: 395-405.

Blundell AG (2004) A review of the CITES listing of big-leaf mahogany. Oryx 38: 1-7.

Grogan J & Barreto P (2005) Big-leaf mahogany on CITES Appendix II: big challenge, big opportunity. Conservation Biology 19: 973-976 (http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/30087).

Lugo AE (1999) Point-counterpoints on the conservation of big-leaf mahogany. General Technical Report WO-64, 21 pp. USDA Forest Service–International Institute of Tropical Forestry, San Juan, PR.

Mejía E, Buitrón X, Peña-Claros M & Grogan J (2008) Bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Case Study for the International Expert Workshop on CITES Non-Detriment Findings, 17-22 November 2008, Cancún, Mexico.

Snook LK (1996) Catastrophic disturbance, logging and the ecology of mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla King): grounds for listing a major tropical timber species in CITES. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 122: 35-46.

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