A group of students in the forest with teacher Canisius Kayombo

The Western Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, image by David Ashby, (CC BY 2.0)

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Meet the Tanzanian creating a herbarium to inspire the next generation

Canisius Kayombo is a researcher enriching our understanding of plants and science in Tanzania.  

He is also the driving force behind a new research and teaching herbarium at the Forestry Training Institute, Olmotonyi, Tanzania. 

Canisius teaching students in the forest

Canisius teaching students during an ecology practical in Morogoro

A place to learn about plants

'A herbarium is a place to study and learn,' says Canisius. 'You need a herbarium, or a centre, as a place where you can have a shared language around plants.' 

Within a small building in the Forestry Training Institute (FTI) Olmotonyi in Arusha, Tanzania, sit 16 purpose-built cabinets housing 4,000 to 6,000 mounted and labelled botanical specimens. 

The idea to build the herbarium came to Canisius in 2009. He wanted to build a herbarium for teaching students, but also as a centre for plant identification and collection expertise. 

'I had to convince the administration and choose the design,' he says.

'We now have around 600 students visiting the herbarium every year. These students study plant physiology and learn about the flowers and leaves of the plant. The older students study plant taxonomy.' 

Canisius teaches at least five modules at the FTI, including botany, tree planting techniques, plant physiology, ecology and climatology. He brings specimen sheets into classes for  discussion. Sometimes he takes groups of students into the herbarium, although only around 20 can fit inside the building at once. 

Students with rope making a research plot in forest

Students at the forestry institute set up a 20m x 20m plot in the forest. They identify the canopy and undercover plants and count the species, seedlings, saplings, poles and trees within the plot. 'If one of the forest structures is not there then you might be missing something. In years to come, the dynamics of the forest will change', says Canisius. 

The challenges of recording Tanzanian biodiversity 

As a training institute, there is no budget for fieldwork, so the students and teachers are often collecting the same plants for practice. 'Sometimes we advise the students on how they can collect specimens from their home place, and when they go on holiday they can collect specimens, so they have collections from different areas,' says Canisius.

'If the students want to have expertise, they have to practice.'

Canisius says, 'Even though we have worked hard to create a list of plants in Tanzania, many plants might still have become extinct without us knowing. At least now we have national parks where you might find an endangered plant.'

On top of this, some plants in the herbarium are yet to be identified. Canisius is the only person at the institute who might be able to identify them, but he doesn't always have time to work on identifying specimens. Even in Tanzania's national herbarium, there are still a several specimens to be identified.

Canisius holding a herbarium specimen

Inside Canisius's herbarium. Canisius started to collect plants in 1988 in the southern highlands of Tanzania: 'My budget was very small. I was self-funded when I did my PhD. When I was a student for my PhD, I collected over 300 plant specimens that stay not in my herbarium but at my University of Dar es Salaam.' 

When he is not teaching, Canisius spends at least one month each semester on his own research on crop growing and forest and plant ecology. He is still looking to complete his PhD but needs more financial support to do this. 

'I am supposed to be finishing this year. I need to publish two more papers that are written but are still going through the publications process,' he says. 

At other times throughout the year, Canisius advises on environmental issues and field trips. He has also often accompanied researchers from the Museum on field trips. 

This project is not Canisius' only contribution to understanding the world of plants, he has also collected over 10,000 botanical specimens and published papers on Tanzania's seaweeds, sea grasses, the impact of climate change on small-scale tobacco, above-ground carbon storage and floristic diversity. There is even a plant species named after him stored at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Plant specimen sheets in the herbarium

Plant specimens sit inside the herbarium, image by Canisius Kayombo

Museum field trips to Tanzania

Museum researchers Neil Brummitt and Ana Claudia Araujo have travelled to Tanzania twice for field work. On both these trips, Canisius has been their local research counterpart.

Each field trip lasts between three up to four weeks. 'They can be very long days with a lot of driving and walking and looking for particular things, different species, with no days off – it's three and a half weeks straight,' says Ana Claudia.  

'There were numerous occasions where we walked into a forestry office, where we needed to show the correct permit application or see if our permit had arrived. The first thing we would do would go and talk to the person in charge, and numerous times Canisius would know them because they were once his student.  

'It was Canisius liaising with the community that made the trip safe and successful.' 

Canisius speaks many languages and so communicated with everyone as the team travelled across the country, making sure that he let the local village leaders know why scientists were there and what they were doing. 

'Canisius would often take the trouble to find the head man of a village or the oldest resident and be very respectful and tell him what we were doing and why we were there,' says Neil. 

When they are in the field, Neil and Ana Claudia collect four sets of specimens whenever possible. Sometimes, if there is a lot of material growing, they can collect more than that. One set stays in Tanzania and another comes back to the Museum in London. Neil says he also collected for Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and for the East African Herbarium in Nairobi, Kenya.

If the plant is rare and there is only one specimen, it stays in Tanzania. 

Neil says, 'Canisius is extremely knowledgeable about vegetation and species. This is very helpful as sometimes there are species that are endemic or rare and he knows them.

'On our second trip, Canisius showed us all the improvements on the herbarium that he is creating with the money he received from the previous field trip.'

A family of colobus monkeys lives at the herbarium

Students don't just study plants at the forestry institute - a family of 12 colobus monkeys live in the forests surrounding the institute's buildings.

Students are researching this monkey family to understand their behaviour and movements.

Canisius is worried that if the trees are ever cleared, the colobus monkeys will also go. He wants to encourage all the animals living in the area so people can visit and learn about them.

2 minutes 53 seconds, MP3 (4.04 MB)

Colobus monkeys in a tree

Colobus monkeys in the canopy of a tree near the forestry research institution

Hotspots of plant diversity

Learn more about the Museum's expeditions to areas of high plant diversity, including Tanzania, that help us ensure our IUCN Red List assessments are accurate.