The sapele is a long-lived and slow-growing tree that plays an important ecological role in the forests of west and central Africa (1) (3) (6). Sapele trees provide habitat for a number of rare monkeys in the Congo forests, such as Thollon’s red colobus (Procolobus badius tholloni) and mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) (6), and during the summer, the trees are also the unique host to a species of caterpillar Imbrasia (Nudaurelia) oyemensis (7) (8). These caterpillars provide an important source of protein for forest-dwelling communities, and also an important source of income; collecting caterpillars can provide a higher annual income per hectare than growing crops (7).
How the large sapele tree reproduces is not entirely clear. It was considered to be hermaphroditic, with each flower containing both male and female organs, but more recent studies suggest that each sapele tree bears separate male and female flowers (3). Sapele trees begin to flower when they have a diameter of 20 centimetres, but only begin producing seeds when reaching a diameter of about 50 centimetres. Flowering occurs from November to February (5), and like other trees of the mahogany family, (Meliaceae), the sapele is pollinated by insects, primarily bees and moths (3). Each year, about one-third of mature sapele trees produce fruits, but flowering and fruiting are irregular among individuals and years, and seed production is erratic (3).
As well as housing protein-rich caterpillars, the sapele is also critical to local communities for their medicinal and structural properties. The bark of the sapele is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and is used for the treatment of headaches, eye infections and swollen feet, and the trunk is used for dug-out canoes and the central roof support in homes (7).