Flora stock-take

Botanists are map­ping the health of our na­tive plants and the re­sults so far are grim.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By TAN CHENG LI star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

THE Shorea kuan­ta­nen­sis is no more. All that re­mains of it is a cou­ple of faded, dried leaves and buds, taped to a piece of card­board and stored in one of thou­sands of boxes fill­ing the shelves of the vast Ke­pong Her­bar­ium at the For­est Re­search In­sti­tute of Malaysia (FRIM).

We will never know how high the tree grows. Or the shade of green of its leaves. Or the colour of its blooms. We can only guess how its seedlings look like. The species was lost to sci­ence and mankind af­ter the only area where it grew, the Bukit Goh for­est re­serve near Kuan­tan, Pa­hang, was cleared and planted over with oil palm.

Three other Penin­su­lar Malaysia plants share the same fate as S. kuan­ta­nen­sis. The fern Ore­ogram­mi­tis crispat­ula has not been seen in Bukit Larut, Perak, since 1952. Its cousin, Ore­ogram­mi­tis kun­st­leri, was last col­lected from Gu­nung Ledang, Jo­hor, in 1880. The Be­go­nia eromis­cha dis­ap­peared af­ter its for­est home in Pe­nang was turned into a farm.

Now, we only know all these four plants from pressed spec­i­mens in the her­bar­ium. With over half of Penin­su­lar Malaysia’s orig­i­nal forests now re­placed by town­ships, in­dus­trial sites, farms and es­tates, our wild na­tive flora has cer­tainly taken a beat­ing.

The lat­est stock-take of our plant king­dom shows just how bad things are: of the 580 species and sub­species looked at so far, al­most half face some de­gree of threat. The re­sults are merely scratch­ing the sur­face. With over 7,700 species left to study, more grim news might come.

The data is the cul­mi­na­tion of the first five years of project Safe­guard­ing the Plant Di­ver­sity of Penin­su­lar Malaysia, un­der­taken by FRIM to update knowl­edge on our flora. It is our most am­bi­tious project on plant bio­di­ver­sity to date, and marks our first at­tempt to doc­u­ment, in de­tail, how our plants are far­ing in the wild.

“Pre­vi­ous work had only looked at the de­scrip­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of species. This project goes one step fur­ther to in­clude their con­ser­va­tion sta­tus (such as whether the species is en­dan­gered),” says botanist Dr Saw Leng Guan, who heads the project. Saw is di­rec­tor of the Trop­i­cal For­est Bio­di­ver­sity Cen­tre at FRIM.

The ef­fort is much needed as there are gaps in our un­der­stand­ing of na­tive plants. Al­though Penin­su­lar Malaysia has a long his­tory of botan­i­cal col­lec­tion, with nat­u­ral­ists and botanists gath­er­ing and doc­u­ment­ing plant spec­i­mens since the 1800s, much of the in­for- ma­tion has not been up­dated for years.

Our ear­li­est floris­tic ac­count was the six-vol­ume The Flora Of The Malay Penin­sula by Henry Ri­d­ley, pub­lished be­tween 1922 and 1925. Over the years, at­tempts to re­vise the knowl­edge have been scat­tered, limited or con­fined to plant fam­i­lies of eco­nomic im­por­tance (such as tim­ber trees) or of per­sonal in­ter­est to sci­en­tists (such as ferns, or­chids and be­go­nias). As such, we have plant groups, such as lianas, which have not been re­viewed since Ri­d­ley’s time.

The FRIM project has so far re­sulted in three pub­li­ca­tions, with more to come: two vol­umes of Flora Of Penin­su­lar Malaysia (one on seed plants and one on ferns and leu­co­phytes) and one vol­ume of the Malaysian Plant Red List (on diptero- carp trees). The Flora Of Penin­su­lar Malaysia com­pi­la­tions con­tain the most up-to-date in­for­ma­tion on 580 species, cov­er­ing tax­o­nomic de­scrip­tions, botan­i­cal draw­ings, dis­tri­bu­tions, ecol­ogy, and con­ser­va­tion sta­tus.

The up­dated in­for­ma­tion will pro­vide base­line in­for­ma­tion that is es­sen­tial for the man­age­ment and con­ser­va­tion of Penin­su­lar Malaysia’s botan­i­cal trea­sure trove. Aside from the four ex­tinct species, FRIM re­searchers doc­u­mented 262 species (45.2%) as threat­ened, out of which 79 are crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, 88 are en­dan­gered and 95, vul­ner­a­ble. They found that re­stricted and de­clin­ing dis­tri­bu­tion, due to loss of nat­u­ral habi­tats, is the great­est threat to plants. A re­duc­tion in pop­u­la­tion size and small num­bers of ma­ture in­di­vid­u­als are the other causes.

The Malaysian Plant Red List is a brief ver­sion of the Flora as its fo­cus is on the con­ser­va­tion sta­tus of plants. The first vol­ume fo­cuses on dipte­ro­carpaceae, an im­por­tant tim­ber group and the dom­i­nant fam­ily in low­land forests. Aside from the ex­tinct S. kuan­ta­nen­sis, the Red List re­vealed 15 dipte­ro­carps to be crit­i­cally en­dan­gered and 35, en­dan­gered. Of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species, six are penin­sula en­demics.

“Dipte­ro­carps are the skele­ton of the for­est from where other plants grow. They form the canopy of the for­est and if re­moved, other plantlife will be af­fected. By do­ing this (the Red List), we will know the re­sponse of the for­est to threats,” says Saw.

Plant scru­tiny

To re­vise the sci­en­tific knowl­edge on our plants, the re­searchers start by first vet­ting the 300,000 dried spec­i­mens – some dat­ing back 100 years, and the old­est one is dated 1819! – in the Ke­pong Her­bar­ium.

From there, the dis­tri­bu­tions of the species are plot­ted on a map and then col­lated with the ex­tent of for­est cover; this nar­rows down the range of plants in our present day.

If the habi­tat of a species is gone, that species is likely to be gone, too. From there, the re­searchers de­ter­mine the level of threat faced by the species, whether crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, en­dan­gered or vul­ner­a­ble, based on the cri­te­ria of the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN). Cross-ref­er­enc­ing is done with col­lec­tions and in­for­ma­tion from herbar­i­ums in Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and the Nether­lands, as well as with agen­cies such as the Forestry Depart­ment.

“It is im­pos­si­ble to go to the ground to look for all the plants as this will take too long. But for some 40 highly en­dan­gered plants, in­clud­ing the rare ones and those feared to be ex­tinct, we went out to the field to do pop­u­la­tion counts,” says Saw.

In their pur­suit to doc­u­ment lo­cal flora, the re­searchers found both good and bad news. One good news is the dis­cov­ery of Dry­obal­anops

bec­ca­rii in Penin­su­lar Malaysia. The plant was pre­vi­ously found only in Bor­neo. The bad news is that one pop­u­la­tion of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Vat­ica yee­chongii in Se­tul for­est re­serve in Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan has been wiped out by build­ing con­struc­tion. The only other pop­u­la­tion of the species, de­scribed only in 2002, in Sun­gai Lalang for­est re­serve in Se­lan­gor, is safe – but it has all of 10 trees.

“We have lost much of our forests, so the range of dis­tri­bu­tion for most species has de­clined. That’s why we have such a high num­ber of threat­ened species,” ex­plains Saw.

Malaysia has 15,000 plants species; Penin­su­lar Malaysia hosts 8,300 species while Sabah and Sarawak, 12,000.

Saw es­ti­mates that re­vis­ing all of the species found in the penin­sula will take at least 20 years. The Flora

Of Penin­su­lar Malaysia fea­tures two se­ries to cover all our plants. Se­ries I, on Ferns and Ly­co­phytes, will have an­other four to five vol­umes. Se­ries II is on Seed Plants and 20 vol­umes are ex­pected. Fu­ture pub­li­ca­tions of the Malaysian Plant Red

List will be on be­go­nias and palms. To ac­com­plish all this, funds are sorely needed. The ini­tial RM7mil pro­vided by the Sci­ence, Technology and In­no­va­tion Min­istry cov­ered only the first phase from 2005 to 2010. Saw says fund­ing for botani- cal in­ven­to­ries usu­ally comes up short de­spite the im­por­tance of such re­search. “By iden­ti­fy­ing what species are threat­ened, we can then do some­thing about it. Very of­ten, we act in ig­no­rance. Peo­ple do not have the right in­for­ma­tion to make the right de­ci­sions. The key is gen­er­at­ing the data to give the right in­for­ma­tion.” He cites the ex­am­ple of Ho­pea

sub­al­ata or mer­awan kanch­ing, an en­demic that grows only in Kanch­ing for­est re­serve in Se­layang, Se­lan­gor. When FRIM botanists heard that a new road, the Rawang by­pass, would cut through the only known site where the trees grow, they im­me­di­ately ap­pealed to the Forestry Depart­ment and the state govern­ment. The road was sub­se­quently re­aligned.

In a sim­i­lar case, the Forestry Depart­ment set aside 63ha within Jeran­gau for­est re­serve in Tereng­ganu as a “ge­netic re­source area”, pro­tect­ing it from log­gers, af­ter the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Dipte­ro­car­pus sarawak­en­sis ( keru­ing layang) was found there. This may well be the last pop­u­la­tion of the species in Penin­su­lar Malaysia as the other pop­u­la­tion in Sun­gai Dadong could no longer be lo­cated.

Yet an­other pos­i­tive con­ser­va­tion ex­am­ple is that of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Dipte­ro­car­pus semivesti

tus ( keru­ing padi). His­tor­i­cal records show that the species grows only in two places: cen­tral Kal­i­man­tan and Perak. The species was feared to be all but lost as the sites in Perak, in the fresh­wa­ter swamps of Parit, Sun­gai Rotan and Sun­gai Tinggi, have been taken over by tin min­ing. In 2006, a FRIM re­searcher found

D. semivesti­tus in a patch of fresh­wa­ter swamp in the Univer­siti Te­knologi Mara cam­pus in Seri Iskan­dar, Perak. Un­for­tu­nately, the site was to be cleared for new build­ings. Af­ter con­sul­ta­tion, the uni­ver­sity au­thor­i­ties agreed to make changes to their ex­pan­sion plans. Al­though some trees were sac­ri­ficed, 53 stands re­main. FRIM is work­ing with the uni­ver­sity to pre­serve the swamp as the trees sur­vive on fluc­tu­a­tions of the wa­ter ta­ble.

“This is likely the last pop­u­la­tion of D. semivesti­tus in the world as the cen­tral Kal­i­man­tan pop­u­la­tion is most likely gone as the area has been planted with oil palm. So it is for­tu­nate that the uni­ver­sity was re­spon­sive to our sug­ges­tions,” says Saw.

But there is also bad news. The lime­stone hill where the en­dan­gered be­go­nia Senyu­mia minu­ti­flora grows is ear­marked for quar­ry­ing by YTL Ce­ment. The hyper-en­demic species is re­stricted to the two ad­ja­cent lime­stone hills of Gu­nung Senyum and Gu­nung Je­bak Puyuh in Pa­hang. Only 60 plants have been seen so far. Saw says sev­eral letters ap­peal­ing for con­ser­va­tion of the plant drew no re­sponse from YTL and the state govern­ment.

Pro­tec­tion plan

To best pro­tect threat­ened plants, Saw says we need to pin­point im­por­tant plant ar­eas (IPAs), which are sites rich in plant di­ver­sity and en­demic species, and pro­tect them. IPAs for dipte­ro­carps and palms in­clude the Kledang Saiong Range in Perak, north-west Ne­gri Sem­bi­lanEast Se­lan­gor, Tereng­ganu, as well as cen­tral and east Jo­hor.

It is high time the Govern­ment pro­vided le­gal pro­tec­tion for our plants. Right now, plants are not shielded un­der any leg­is­la­tion. Only those that hap­pen to grow in pro­tected ar­eas such as state or na­tional parks or wildlife re­serves, are safe­guarded.

“Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species should be listed in an Act and au­to­mat­i­cally pro­tected. With such a le­gal in­stru­ment, if an en­dan­gered species is found, the land owner or de­vel­oper will be re­quired by law to pro­tect it. Now, pro­tec­tion is just based on good­will.”

We also need to move into species re­cov­ery and restora­tion of the most threat­ened species. Con­ser­va­tion ac­tions in­clude mon­i­tor­ing the pop­u­la­tions to de­ter­mine their health; de­vel­op­ing con­ser­va­tion mea­sures to re­move the threats; ini­ti­at­ing pro­tec­tion and re­cov­ery pro­grammes; and ini­ti­at­ing ex-situ con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes to aid re­cov­ery (such as ar­ti­fi­cial breed­ing and ge­netic con­ser­va­tion).

“The Govern­ment has to take more se­ri­ous ac­tion to pro­tect our species. Once a plant is ex­tinct, it’s gone for­ever. There’s no go­ing back,” stresses Saw.

Lost for­ever:

All that’s left of Shore­akuan­ta­nen­sis is the pressed spec­i­mens (the page on ex­treme right) be­ing held by botanist Dr Saw Leng Guan. Now con­sid­ered ex­tinct, the tree species is known from only the Bukit Goh for­est re­serve near Kuan­tan, an area that has been cul­ti­vated with oil palm.

Aside from vet­ting her­bar­ium spec­i­mens, FRIM re­searchers have gone on the ground to col­lect and doc­u­ment plants un­der the Safe­guard­ing the Plant Di­ver­sity of Penin­su­lar Malaysia project.

Plants in peril

Botanists re­vis­ing the knowl­edge of Penin­su­lar Malaysia’s flora found that out of 580 species and sub­species as­sessed so far, four species have gone ex­tinct and 45% are un­der threat.

Ex­tinct

Ore­ogram­mi­tis crispat­ula (fern) - Only known from Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill); last seen and col­lected in 1952

Ore­ogram­mi­tis kun­st­leri (fern) - Last seen and col­lected in 1880 in

Gu­nung Ledang, Jo­hor

Be­go­nia eromis­cha - Known only from 1 lo­cal­ity in

Pe­nang, now a farm

Shorea kuan­ta­nen­sis (tree) - Known only from 1 lo­cal­ity in

Pa­hang, now an oil palm es­tate

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