Colom­bian botanist risks life to doc­u­ment rich bio­di­ver­sity

Colom­bian botanist is risk­ing his life to doc­u­ment his coun­try's rich bio­di­ver­sity

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

For the last three decades, botanist Julio Be­tan­cur has braved mine­fields and pen­e­trated deep into jun­gle ter­ri­tory in­fested with drug traf­fick­ers and armed gangs in a bid to doc­u­ment Colom­bia’s rich bio­di­ver­sity.

Colom­bia is sec­ond only to Brazil for its in­cred­i­ble range of fauna and flora. Armed only with a note­book and gar­den­ing shears, Be­tan­cur has taken con­sid­er­able risks to col­lect plant cut­tings.

He’s con­trib­uted four per cent of the 600,000 sam­ples in the Univer­sity of Colom­bia’s herbar­ium.

There have been close calls in­clud­ing ‘a slightly vi­o­lent’ en­counter with a group of drug run­ners Be­tan­cur and his col­leagues came across in the jun­gle.

“With­out re­al­is­ing it, we were putting our­selves in the eye of the storm,” Be­tan­cur told AFP.

For­tu­nately, the drug traf­fick­ers ac­cepted their ex­pla­na­tions and left them alone.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, lo­cal peas­ants freed them from a mine­field.

“If it hadn’t been for them, the com­mu­ni­ties, we wouldn't be here telling the story,” said Be­tan­cur.

The 59 year old, a bi­ol­o­gist, univer­sity pro­fes­sor and col­lec­tor of bromeli­ads - which in­clude the pineap­ple, Span­ish moss and queen of the An­des - says it’s worth tak­ing the risks so his coun­try can ‘know about’ its bio­di­ver­sity.

While dan­gers lurk for Be­tan­cur, Colom­bia's bio­di­ver­sity faces far more threats.

De­for­esta­tion - mainly from live­stock farm­ing but also il­le­gal min­ing and coca plan­ta­tions - has done un­told dam­age to Colom­bia’s jun­gles.

Al­most five per cent of the 169,000 hectares (650 square miles) of il­le­gal coca plan­ta­tions are in pro­tected ar­eas.

Il­licit gold min­ing, us­ing tech­niques that are harm­ful to the en­vi­ron­ment, cover 98,000 hectares - an area greater than Ber­lin.

Since 2010, more than a mil­lion hectares of Colom­bian jun­gle have been cut down, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial re­port.

‘Book of forests’

Wear­ing an ex­plorer’s hat and with a ruck­sack on his back, Be­tan­cur forges into the moun­tain­ous Chin­ganza Na­tional Park some 40km from the cap­i­tal Bo­gota.

Sud­denly, he stops in front of a plant with tiny yel­low flow­ers known as a ‘chite’ in Colom­bia: A mem­ber of the St John's-wort fam­ily.

He takes a clip­ping and wraps it in news­pa­per soaked in al­co­hol.

Back in the univer­sity herbar­ium, where Be­tan­cur works as a cu­ra­tor, he jots down in his note­book the colour, size, smell, co­or­di­nates and the sam­ple num­ber that be­trays his vast body of re­search: 22,999.

“Ev­ery time I take a botan­i­cal sam­ple it’s like writ­ing a page in the book of our forests,” he said.

In the fu­ture, once the veg­e­ta­tion has dis­ap­peared from some­where, peo­ple ‘will know what species lived there at a cer­tain time and with that will re­con­struct the nat­u­ral history of this ter­ri­tory’.

In his early ex­pe­di­tions, Be­tan­cur tra­versed Ama­zo­nian forests study­ing species that have since dis­ap­peared.

The Alexan­der von Hum­bolt Bi­o­log­i­cal Re­sources Re­search In­sti­tute in Bo­gota es­ti­mates that at least 2,100 plant species are in danger of ex­tinc­tion due to de­for­esta­tion.

Of the 30,000 plants the in­sti­tute has doc­u­mented in Colom­bia, 26 per cent are en­demic.

Be­tan­cur’s work is dis­played on rick­ety shelv­ing at Colom­bia's na­tional univer­sity.

The botanist com­pares the herbar­ium to the Great Li­brary of Alexan­dria in Egypt, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant li­braries of the an­cient world.

Bap­tism needed

At Be­tan­cur’s apart­ment in Bo­gota, he has a large ter­race where he looks af­ter his col­lec­tion of bromeli­ads.

These plants, with their colour­ful flow­ers rang­ing from red to green, pro­vide a wa­ter source for an­i­mals dur­ing times of drought.

Among them is a species that had never be­fore been doc­u­mented un­til Be­tan­cur no­ticed it while out driv­ing.

He spot­ted it high up in a tree in Bo­gota’s sa­van­nah and climbed up to take some clip­pings.

“I still don't know what to call it be­cause I have to bap­tise it,” said Be­tan­cur, one of the Colom­bians to have named the largest num­ber of plants.

Peo­ple will know what species lived there at a cer­tain time and with that will re­con­struct the nat­u­ral history of this ter­ri­tory Julio Be­tan­cur

Top: Julio Be­tan­cur with his ruck­sack col­lect­ing plant sam­ples. Above, he painstak­ingly doc­u­ments the col­lected sam­ples Columbia’s Chin­ganza Na­tional Park where Julio Be­tan­cur of­ten col­lects his sam­ples from

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