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Dr Likulunga Emmanuel Likulunga

What lies beneath can help save the forests above, says Dr Likulunga Emmanuel Likulunga.

His project proposal for the JWO Research Grant is “Ethnobotany and Belowground Biodiversity Exploratory in Miombo Woodlands”, and he intends to use DNA barcoding “to disentangle the effects of season, anthropogenic activities of deforestation and soil properties on belowground biodiversity”.

All species have their own barcode, or fingerprint, and DNA barcoding can identify a specimen using a short DNA segment. It is therefore a useful taxonomic tool not only to identify but discover species.

Through this, Likulunga hopes “to establish a connection between local tree species usage and sustainable management in ecologically and economically important Miombo woodland ecosystems”.

Likulunga says his project will “generate data on belowground biodiversity under varying climatic conditions and temporal-spacial scales in the Miombo woodlands for the first time, that can be used by the scientific community to understand the tree-soil-microbe continuum.”

By generating data on ethnobotany, it can provide insights “on how people use plants in different countries and thus foster conservation of such plants for sustainable usage and avoidance of extinction, which in turn can impact the local communities negatively.”

Explaining the importance of the extensive Miomba woodland terrestrial ecosystems throughout central and southern Africa, Likulunga says they have “ecological benefits of nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and provision of habitats for micro- and macro-fauna. The Miombo woodlands also provide economic benefits such as provision of timber, caterpillars, mushrooms and honey.”

He says “soil fungal and bacterial communities contribute to tree wellbeing by undertaking decomposition and forming symbiotic associations with trees for enhancement of water and nutrient uptake. Anthropogenic activities of deforestation are common in Miombo woodlands and might be attributed to various reasons such as knowledge on plant usage by local communities.

“Deforestation for timber, farming and charcoal production exerts pressure on Miombo woodlands and hence the need to formulate policies for sustainable management. The relationship of vegetation composition to abiotic factors such as soil properties, climatic conditions and altitudes will provide insights on tree species distribution and habitats, which can be used in reforestation programmes to alleviate effects of climate change. Moreover, mushroom collection is an activity that generates income for local communities, especially women who take an active role in mushroom collection. The diversity and composition of mushrooms collected are linked to tree species composition.

“Fungal communities are known to regulate the quality of water by taking up minerals such as nitrogen. By unraveling the diversity and composition of microbial communities, the information will provide insights on understanding the hydrological regime under Miombo woodlands located in different countries.

“Trees that habour microbes vital for nutrient and water uptake might be recommended for integration in agroforestry and thus suppress the use of chemical fertilisers.”

Likulunga emphasises that his research is informed by direct experience of adverse environmental conditions. “When I was in grade six,” he says” “my country (Zambia) was hit by drought and I wrote a note to my primary teacher that I would not come for class because I wanted to pound maize and have food since we had no food at home.”


Dr Likulunga obtained his BSc in Biological Sciences and then pursued his MSc and PhD studies at George-August University in Germany specialising in plant-microbial interactions and tree ecophysiology. He is now a lecturer and researcher.