Ebony is a dark brown to jet black wood that is prized for its colour, hardness and density. The wood is prized for making piano keys as well as oboes, clarinets and even bagpipes. Ebony trees (Diospyrus melanoxylon) are found in the East African states of Mozambique and Tanzania. Ebony is the most expensive wood found in Africa. Ebony trees are also found in India and Ceylon, but the African ebony is considered the finest.
Ebony trees are an important resource to the peoples of Tanzania and Mozambique. Approximately 60,000 to 80,000 wood carvers make their living by carving wood from the ebony tree. Wood that is exported costs up to £11,050 per cubic metre. Several international attempts have been made to protect the ebony trees from over-exploitation. However, these efforts have been opposed by the governments of Tanzania and Mozambique for fear of negative economic impact.
Ebony is also known as blackwood or locally as mpingo. Ebony trees are members of the rosewood family and the branches bear sharp thorns. They grow in grasslands and savannahs as well as lowland coastal areas. The roots of the ebony tree can fix nitrogen, enriching the surrounding soil. Ebony trees do not typically grow in groups but are found in solitary existence. This may be due to its poor ability to compete with other trees in close proximity. It takes an ebony tree between 60 and 200 years to mature into a harvestable commodity. Ebony trees reach a maximum height of about 9 m (30 feet) with a diameter of about one foot.
Ebony trees that grow more slowly generally have denser, tighter-grained wood with darker to jet black hues. The finest wood comes from trees that are grown at higher altitudes and from older trees. Ebony that is grown in lower altitudes and particularly in iron-rich soils tends to have more red tones.
Tanzania issues licenses to cut ebony trees. This is an effort to control the take of ebony, and is also a source of revenue for the government. Tanzania has been replanting ebony trees since the 1960s and today has the largest amount of high-quality ebony in its forests than anywhere else. Young ebony is illegally harvested by locals who favour its denseness for making charcoal.
Harvest-ready mature trees in many parts of the world have largely disappeared due to logging. Ebony was once available in India, Ceylon and Indonesia. Outside of Mozambique and Tanzania, there are smaller stands of ebony trees in many other African nations such as Kenya and Malawi. Intentional logging of the older, straight-trunked trees may be damaging the gene pool by depriving healthy seeds for future generations. It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million ebony trees left in Mozambique and Tanzania, with only about 20 per cent of a harvest-ready size. At the current rate of harvest between 20,000 and 30,000 trees per year, the harvest-ready population of ebony trees is shrinking by about 5 per cent per year.