The fine-grained hardwood recognized the world over as mahogany actually comes from three species of trees indigenous to the tropical Americas. Of these three species from the Swietenia genus (Swietenia mahagoni, Swietenia humilis, and Swietenia macrophylla), only Swietenia macrophylla, commonly known as “big-leaf” or Honduran mahogany, is commercially exploited today.
The Swietenia genus forms part of the Meliaceae family of around six hundred globally distributed species. In the timber trade, while other members of the Meliaceae family can be classified as “true mahogany”, only trees of the Swietenia genus can be called “genuine mahogany”.
The natural range of Swietenia mahagoni, known as Cuban or West Indian mahogany, is restricted to the Caribbean and southern Florida. While it once dominated the international trade in mahogany, it has not been commercialized intensively for more than seventy years. And, because its distribution is limited to the dry forests of Central America’s Pacific coast, and also because it is a small and often twisted tree, Swietenia humilis has always been considered of limited commercial value.
“Big-leaf” mahogany is the most widespread member of its genus. It is found in tropical forests all the way from Mexico to the Amazon forests of southern Brazil, including Tambopata National Reserve and our own Tambopata Ecolodge Private Conservation Area (where it is known as “caoba”). It is a massive tree, growing to between 30 and 40 meters in height (100 to 130 feet), with a girth of between 3 and 4 meters (10 to 13 feet).
In particularly favorable conditions, Swietenia macrophylla has been known to reach 60 meters in height (almost 200 feet), with a girth of 9 meters (30 feet). It is named for its large leaves, which can grow up to 45 centimeters (almost 18 inches) in length. Swietenia macrophylla seeds can be up to 12 centimeters (almost 5 inches) long, while the upward-growing fruit capsules (containing as many as 70 seeds and known as “sky fruits”) can be 40 centimeters (16 inches) long.
The illegal logging of Swietenia macrophylla across its entire range led in 2003 to its becoming the first high-volume tree to be placed on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II list. CITES Appendix II contains species of flora and fauna which while not necessarily considered in danger of extinction, are classified as subject to exploitation with the potential to threaten their survival.
Although Brazil officially banned the exporting of mahogany in 2001, illegal logging remains a serious concern. Today, the world’s biggest exporter is Peru, with most Peruvian mahogany going to the United States. It is estimated that as much as ninety percent of the mahogany exported from Peru to the United States is harvested illegally.
The extraordinary value placed on mahogany has made it financially viable for loggers to open roads into primary forest for the exploitation of relatively few individual trees. This opening of roads in order to extract mahogany inevitably leads to logging of other species, deforestation, agricultural settlement and the fragmentation that impacts on biodiversity through the genetic isolation of both flora and fauna.
Mahogany has been prized for centuries for its durability and beautiful reddish-brown hue. Traditionally, mahogany has been used in the making of furniture, musical instruments, wall paneling, boats, and coffins. Mahogany is valued as a wood that in spite of its durability is relatively easy to work, and for its dimensional stability; once worked, it tends not to shrink or swell. And because big-leaf mahogany trees grow so tall and stout, the boards harvested from them tend to be long, wide, and free of any defects that might disturb their beautiful grain.