Traditional ecological knowledge-based assessment of threatened woody species and their potential substitutes in the Atakora mountain chain, a threatened hotspot of biodiversity in Northwestern Benin, West Africa.
Background: Atakora mountains in Benin are a unique but fragile ecosystem, harboring many endemic plant species. The ecosystem is undergoing degradation, and the woody vegetation is dramatically declining due to high anthropogenic actions and recurrent drought. This study aimed to (i) assess the diversity of threatened woody species and (ii) identify their potential substitutes in the three regions of the Atakora mountains namely East Atakora, Central Atakora, and West Atakora. Methods: The data were collected during expeditions on surveyed localities through semi-structured individual interviews. Free-listing was used to record threatened woody species and which were important and why. Alphadiversity indices were used to assess diversity of threatened and important threatened woody species. A correspondence analysis was used to determine the reason supporting their importance. Differences in species composition were assessed using analysis of similarities. A number of potential substitutes were compared among species using generalized linear models. Results: A total of 117 woody species (37 families and 92 genera) were identified. The most prominent families were Fabaceae (19.66%), Combretaceae (12.82%), and Moraceae (10.26%), and the richest genera were Ficus (10 species), Combretum (6), and Terminalia (5). Most threatened species differed across regions (East Atakora, Central Atakora, and West Atakora) and included Afzelia africana, Anogeissus leiocarpa, Borassus aethiopum, Diospyros mespiliformis, Khaya senegalensis, Milicia excelsa, and Pterocarpus erinaceus. Most socio-economically important species (K. senegalensis, Parkia biglobosa, Vitellaria paradoxa, and V. doniana) were used mainly for food, timber, and fuelwood purposes. Old and adult people, and Dendi and Fulfulde sociolinguistic groups had greater knowledge of threatened woody plant species. High intercultural differentiations in species composition were detected between Bariba-Berba and Bariba-Natimba. Knowledge of substitutes also differed across regions with P. erinaceus, Isoberlinia spp., and A. africana being the most cited substitutes. Conclusion: Basic data was provided here to inform decision and guide efficient management of woody resources. There was evidence that immediate conservation measures are required for some high economic value woody taxa which were critically threatened. Ex-situ conservation of these species while promoting their integration into agroforestry-based systems were recommended. Besides, community-based management programs and community-led initiatives involving knowledgeable people from different horizons will lead to a long-lasting conservation of these threatened resources.