A photograph of Uvariopsis dicaprio in the forest

The tree was found during the preparation of a conservation checklist for Cameroon's Ebo forest. Image © Lorna Mackinnon/RBG Kew.

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Tree named after Leonardo DiCaprio is one of 2022's first new species

A newly described species of tree has received international attention after being named in honour of actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The name recognises the Oscar winner's role in helping to protect its Cameroonian habitat and draws attention to efforts to make its home a national park.

A tropical tree related to the ylang-ylang is following in the footsteps of its famous namesake as it makes headlines around the world.

Uvariopsis dicaprio, named after actor Leonardo DiCaprio, is found only in the Ebo forest in Cameroon, one of the largest intact rainforests in the African nation. It honours the Hollywood star's efforts to raise awareness of the threat of logging in the area, following permission being granted by the nation's government in July 2020.

This prompted a backlash nationally and internationally, which led to the government revoking the logging license the following month.

In their description of the species, published in PeerJ, the scientists wrote, 'This threatened and spectacular tree is named for the American actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio, who, through several months in 2020, lobbied extensively on social to draw attention to threats against the numerous rare Ebo species from the logging concession that had been announced earlier that year. The concession was cancelled in August 2020, surely in part due to his efforts.'

The paper, a collaboration between Cameroonian scientists and Kew Gardens in the UK, is one of the first new species of 2022.

A goliath frog sits in water

The goliath frog is one of many rare species which live in Ebo Forest. Image © meunierd/Shutterstock

Once upon a time in Cameroon

The Ebo forest consists of more than 1,500 square kilometres of pristine rainforest lying alongside the river of the same name near Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé. It is home to more than 65 threatened plant species, as well as many endangered animals.

These include the goliath frog, the world's largest, as well as forest elephants and gorillas. It is also one of the few areas of the world where the Critically Endangered Preuss’s red colobus is known to exist.

The diversity of life found within Ebo forest is one of the many benefits of preserving rainforests in their natural state. Others include the ecosystem services they provide, including the absorption of carbon dioxide, soil enrichment, and even contributing to global rainfall.

However, like other rainforests around the world, Ebo is under threat from human activities in the area. Its proximity to towns and cities makes it more easily accessible and vulnerable to illegal poaching, logging and mining.

These dangers persist despite a 2010 announcement that the forest was to become a national park. However, these words failed to materialise into actions, and the forest remains without legal protection.

The situation became more desperate a decade later, when Cameroon's government proposed that almost 1,300 square kilometres of the forest would be given over to logging. The proposals threatened both the forest's biodiversity as well as the culture of the area's indigenous population.

In July 2021, the first of the concessions was approved, leaving Ebo forest on the edge of destruction.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio was recognised by scientists as a result of his 'extensive lobbying' to draw attention to Ebo Forest. Image © Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock

Catch me if you can

The approval of Ebo's deforestation ignited an international campaign to protect the forest, led by Cameroonian researchers. An open letter to reverse the decision was signed by more than 60 scientists and conservationists, while celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio highlighted the area's plight on social media.

During this time, researchers prepared a conservation checklist of Ebo forest's native flora to help draw up plans to conserve these species. While preparing this list, they found a specimen that was unlike any other species in its genus, leading to the description of U. dicaprio.

Thin and bright yellow-green petals form flowers that face down towards the ground, leading to suggestions the tree is probably pollinated by moths, unlike any of its 19 close relatives.

Living in an area of just over four square kilometres, U. dicaprio joins seven other species of plant that are unique to the Ebo forest, many of which are also only found in small areas.

Due to the small habitat size and lack of protection, researchers believe the newly discovered plant is already Critically Endangered, and at risk of being lost forever.

Since being named, U. dicaprio has been widely reported on, lending publicity to a tree that may otherwise have gone unappreciated. Naming a species after a celebrity is often a good way of raising awareness of conservation issues, such as insects affected by Australian wildfires being named after Pokemon and RuPaul.

It can only be hoped that, with backing from the star of Titanic, U. dicaprio will go on.