A big-leaf mahogany tree can grow up to 60 metres high and produces leaves up to 50cm long. The trees are very slow growers and can live for over 350 years. The former range of the big-leaf mahogany was southern Mexico through Central America and into Brazil and Bolivia.
The beautiful, deep reddish hardwood timber of the big-leaf mahogany has been sought after for centuries and trade of its wood began with the Spanish in the 1500s. The two other species in the genus Swietenia, the Caribbean mahogany and Honduras mahogany, are now regarded as commercially extinct from over-exploitation, leaving S. macrophylla as the remaining species of ‘genuine’ mahogany. As the wood is so valuable, foresters commonly build roads into dense forests to access the trees. It is estimated that numbers of big-leaf mahogany have declined up to 70 percent since the 1950s and they have experienced a 60 percent reduction in their range in Central America.
S. macrophylla has been protected under Appendix II of CITES since 2002, restricting its trade and encouraging future sustainable management of the species. Today, most of the commercial big-leaf mahogany comes from vast plantations around Asia, with the largest in India and Fiji. While this, too, has its own environmental implications if not sustainably managed, it might help to save what remains of big-leaf mahogany in the wild.