Botanists to save frag­ile­plants

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

The sixth mass ex­tinc­tion is com­ing, with nearly half of all liv­ing species on the planet likely to dis­ap­pear by the end of this cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to re­cent sci­en­tific stud­ies. How to pre­vent it? Sci­en­tists around the world have been try­ing to fig­ure that out.

At Xishuang­banna Trop­i­cal Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Menglun, Yun­nan province, pro­fes­sor Chen Jin and pro­fes­sor Richard Thomas Cor­lett have worked out their own so­lu­tion.

To­gether with more than 20 re­searchers, and PhD and grad­u­ate stu­dents, they launched a pro­ject three years ago they dubbed Zero Ex­tinc­tion and have been work­ing to put all of Xishuang­banna’s plant species un­der pro­tec­tion.

Although botan­i­cal gar­dens have a cu­mu­la­tive ca­pac­ity in plant con­ser­va­tion, XTBG di­rec­tor Chen Jin said, their con­tri­bu­tion to con­ser­va­tion is still very lim­ited, mainly through off-site con­ser­va­tion. But botan­i­cal gar­dens can also con­trib­ute to on-site con­ser­va­tion, which pro­tects species di­ver­sity in nat­u­ral habi­tats and ecosys­tems, he said.

Dif­fer­ent from many well-known botan­i­cal gar­dens in ma­jor cities of de­vel­oped coun­tries, such as Kew Royal Botanic Gar­dens in the United King­dom and the Brook­lyn Botanic Gar­den in New York, which are usu­ally in tem­per­ate zones and cover com­pa­ra­bly small ar­eas, XTBG is in the bio­di­ver­sity-rich trop­i­cal area and con­tains a large num­ber of in­dige­nous species, Chen said.

“Through ef­fi­cient en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion to build up a long-term part­ner­ship with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, we can help the com­mu­ni­ties’ eco­log­i­cal restora­tion,” he said. “By fo­cus­ing on con­ser­va­tion, we can de­velop XTBG into a con­ser­va­tion leader in the whole (Asian trop­i­cal) re­gion and a model for the world’s new botan­i­cal gar­dens.”

Zero Ex­tinc­tion is a key pro­ject of the de­vel­op­ment strat­egy.

Ac­cord­ing to pro­fes­sor Cor­lett, who is also di­rec­tor of the gar­den’s cen­ter for in­te­gra­tive con­ser­va­tion, Xishuang­banna is ex­tremely im­por­tant for the coun­try’s bio­di­ver­sity even though it cov­ers “a tiny area” of China. “It has 15 per­cent of all China’s plant species,” said the pro­fes­sor from the UK, who has been work­ing with the botan­i­cal gar­den for three years un­der the aus­pices of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences but “has been work­ing in trop­i­cal Asia for 35 years”.

The species are un­der se­ri­ous threat, he said.

“The for­est, which was here 30, 40 years ago, is now be­ing re­placed by rub­ber, by tea in high-al­ti­tude ar­eas, or by banana in val­leys,” he said.

The pro­ject has three aims, said the pro­fes­sor, who taught at univer­si­ties in Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and Hong Kong be­fore sign­ing a five-year con­tract with the botan­i­cal gar­den.

One is “to ba­si­cally find out what is the cur­rent sta­tus of plants recorded from Xishuang­banna”.

They have a list of plant species recorded in Xishuang­banna over the last 50 years. It’s about 4,500 species. They tried to as­sess their cur­rent sta­tus.

“Are they OK,

crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, en­dan­gered or vul­ner­a­ble?” Cor­lett ex­plained.

They held an ex­pert meet­ing, went through the whole list, and re­searchers were sent to con­duct field sur­veys. Then they had a pre­lim­i­nary as­sess­ment. “We found that Xishuang­banna only has about 4,100 species over­all,” Cor­lett said. “A lot (of his­tor­i­cal records) turned out to be wrong. Three are prob­a­bly ex­tinct in Xishuang­banna — two are or­chids, (which) no­body saw in 10 years.”

Among them, about 150 species are crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, nearly 200 en­dan­gered, and about 700 vul­ner­a­ble. “Roughly 8 per­cent of plant species, about 350 species, are en­dan­gered,” Cor­lett said. “It means they (ei­ther) have only a few in­di­vid­u­als left (in the wild) or they are liv­ing in nar­row ar­eas that are rapidly be­ing de­stroyed.”

Stage two of the pro­ject is to pro­tect them.

A lot of en­dan­gered species are dis­trib­uted in the re­gion’s na­ture re­serves. They have al­ready been pro­tected well, Cor­lett said.

How­ever, many other en­dan­gered species, liv­ing in small habi­tats, are not un­der any pro­tec­tion. “Ideally, we ex­pect to pro­tect them in their nat­u­ral habi­tats,” the pro­fes­sor said. “If we can’t, as a backup plan, we will pro­tect them in the botan­i­cal gar­den. For some species, it is pos­si­ble to dry the seeds to freeze them and store them for a long time. For many, we have to cul­ti­vate them in XTBG and try to make sure they won’t go ex­tinct.”

Of the 4,100 species, Chen said, about 1,600 species have al­ready been col­lected and cul­ti­vated in the botan­i­cal gar­den.

“Of the 350 en­dan­gered species, how­ever, only 30 per­cent of them can be found here,” he said. “In our fu­ture works we will make sure to col­lect all of them and put them un­der cer­tain pro­tec­tion in our gar­den.”

The third stage is ed­u­ca­tion, Cor­lett said.

On one of the sa­cred forested hills that are be­lieved to be the rest­ing place of the spir­its of the Dai eth­nic group’s an­ces­tors, at Mengyang­guang vil­lage near Jinghong city in Xishuang­banna, re­searchers and stu­dents from the gar­den rein­tro­duced and planted 67 species of in­dige­nous trees there. As a reg­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment ed­u­ca­tion and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion pro­gram started last year, the treeplant­ing event also had the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Dai vil­lagers and stu­dents from a lo­cal pri­mary school.

Af­ter the plants, Cor­lett said, sim­i­lar meth­ods will be used to as­sess the sta­tus of Xishuang­banna’s other groups of liv­ing species.

Mean­while, as a key mem­ber of Chi­nese Union of Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, which has a mem­ber­ship of nearly 90 botan­i­cal gar­dens around the coun­try, XTBG is pro­mot­ing the Zero Ex­tinc­tion pro­ject’s idea and method­ol­ogy to more botan­i­cal gar­dens.

“Through sim­i­lar projects by the other botan­i­cal gar­dens, more plant species of the coun­try can be put un­der bet­ter pro­tec­tion,” said Chen, who is also pres­i­dent of the or­ga­ni­za­tion es­tab­lished in 2013. Con­tact the writer at chen­liang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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