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Taiwan Panorama / Editor’s Picks / Article:Tropical Treasures Take Root in Taiwan: Li Chia-wei's Conservation Center
Editor’s Picks
Tropical Treasures Take Root in Taiwan: Li Chia-wei's Conservation Center
(Kuo Li-chuan/photos by Lan Chun-hsiao/tr. by Chris Nelson)
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Of late, more and more people have been visiting faraway Gaoshu Township, Pingtung County. First, it's the burial place of Taiwan's great politico and business magnate Koo Chen-fu, and reputed to have superb fengshui; second, despite once being rather inhospitable, it has become an Eden for retired folks with its picturesque views of Mt. Dawu in the east and encompassed by three streams.

In three short years, the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center, built with land and funds donated by the Koo family, has become an important sanctuary for tropical plants, lending a helping hand in their bitter struggle for survival amid the changes of global warming.

Of an estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants on the planet, 103 (including rice, wheat, beans and corn) provide humankind with over 90% of our caloric intake; some 10,000 other plant species are also used for food and medicine. On top of this, plants provide building materials, fabrics, rubber and biofuels; they also protect the environment and absorb carbon dioxide. And over 250,000 species of flowering plants adorn the planet, soothing the human spirit.

But it was not until Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson began pioneering the concept of biodiversity in 1986 that we truly realized their sheer importance. Missouri Botanical Garden president Peter H. Raven warns that pollution, climate change, invasive species, overuse of natural resources and human-caused damage to plant habitats have not merely led to the extinction or near-extinction of numerous species; they could help trigger the planet's sixth great mass extinction.

"It's estimated that by 2050, a quarter of the world's plants may become extinct, and if no action is taken after that, two thirds of plant species may disappear by the end of the century. And this is based on estimates of habitat destruction alone," says a concerned Li Chia-wei, professor of life sciences at National Tsing Hua University. The speed of extinction of the world's species is 1,000 times greater than in the past, and we may lose key resources for treating major diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

In response, the international community has initiated many plant conservation projects: the Millennium Seed Bank project launched by London's Kew Gardens in 2000 is estimated to have a collection of seeds totaling one tenth, or around 25,000, of the world's wild plant species as at the end of 2009, preserving them in a low-temperature, low-humidity environment. In 2007, Norway founded the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, building long tunnels in this arctic land to preserve all of the world's crop seeds at 18°C below zero. These two projects aim to give plants a new lease on life amid global warming and environmental instability.

Saving our richest resource

Over 60% of the world's plants are concentrated in tropical rainforests, and the seeds of these plants are unsuitable for storage at low temperatures and humidities. For example, many seeds of the palm family go bad within a month or even a few days of falling to the ground if they do not germinate. For this reason, Li believes that the only choice for preserving tropical plant seed stock is to build botanical gardens so that they can be conserved outside their native habitats.

It would be best, from a biological standpoint, to preserve seed stock in native habitats, but because of the human need for timber, arable land, mining, papermaking and energy, rainforests have been disappearing from the earth's surface by an area 10 times the size of Taiwan a year. This affects biodiversity through rapid extinction of species, and with the complexity of rainforest ecosystems, once they are destroyed, recovery is near impossible.

Unlike the Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Garden, which are located in the temperate zone, Taiwan straddles the tropical and subtropical zones, giving it excellent natural conditions for creating a tropical plant sanctuary. In 2005, Li, who has long followed the doctrine of biodiversity, proposed a project to conserve tropical plants. But hindered by overlapping government regulations and land acquisition problems, he has turned to cooperation with private business.

"In the search for specialists, land and funding, I experienced first hand Taiwan's vitality and idealism: so many people responded with enthusiasm and conscience to this non-profit program." In 2006, Li received a pledge from Taiwan Cement chairman Leslie Koo, and the following January the board of directors voted to provide NT$100 million in funds over five years, and donated nearly 20 hectares of land located at Taihe Farm in Gaoshu Township, Pingtung County. The Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center was thus founded, with Li taking charge as chief executive.

All of Taiwan chips in

Gaoshu Township is in a tropical monsoon zone, with an average annual temperature of 28°C, winter temperatures seldom dipping below 15°C, and an annual rainfall of 2,500 mm, well suited for growing tropical plants. In its first stage, the center is concentrating on 12 important plant families-Orchidaceae (orchids), Zingiberaceae (gingers), Musaceae (bananas and plantains), Heliconiaceae (which includes lobster-claws), Marantaceae (arrowroots), Arecaceae (palms), Araceae, Bromeliaceae (which includes pineapples), Theaceae (teas), Asclepiadaceae, Gesneriaceae and Pteridophyta (ferns). In 2008, Begoniaceae (the begonia family) and succulents were added.

Though the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI), the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNS) and Kenting National Park each boast an abundance of tropical plants to view, notes Li, they mostly emphasize visitor edification. In contrast, the conservation center's goal is conservation.

In March 2007, as the ground breaking day for the center's first greenhouse was approaching, Li traveled around visiting the TFRI, NMNS, Taiwan Banana Research Institute (TBRI) and some private collectors, securing massive support and donations of plants: the TFRI's Hengchun branch donated some 50 valuable tree species; the NMNS transplanted around 100 species of palms, 126 individuals in all; the TBRI gave all 228 extant banana species; the Kaohsiung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station donated some Zingiberaceae, and the Chiayi Branch of the Tainan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, presented them with some Rutaceae (which includes citrus).

"So many Taiwanese scholars are taking international-level action in biological surveys and research," says Li. For instance, of around 1,600 begonia species, 30 were first described by Academia Sinica Biodiversity Research Center research fellow Peng Ching-I. In Dr. Peng's greenhouses, more than 300 species of rare begonias from around the world are preserved, most of them gathered personally from the wilds of Taiwan, China and Southeast Asia. The transplanting process to the conservation center started in October 2009, and at the time of this writing it is expected to be finished by the end of January 2010.

The consultants also visited over 150 international plant growing centers, which are transplanting rare tropical plants to the conservation center. In January 2008, less than a year after ground breaking, Li formally invited scholars and media to take a look at the center; by that time he had collected 4,601 species, the most diverse collection in Taiwan.

On opening day, the conservation center displayed rare plants, Vanoverberghia sasakiana, a species of the ginger family first described in 2000, which only grows in Orchid Island; the endemic orchids Saccolabiopsis wulaokenensis and Bulbophyllum fimbriperianthium, first described in 2006 by conservation center consultant Lin Wei-ming and National Taiwan University professor Lin Tsan-piao; Pyrenaria buisanensis, an endemic tea species first described in 1918 but not seen again until 2004; and one of less than 50 remaining individuals of the endemic Archangiopteris itoi.

Joy and pain of isolation

After nearly three years of growth, the center now boasts eight greenhouses, with shading screens to control light; a reverse osmosis misting system to regulate humidity and reduce temperatures; a water-wall greenhouse reserved for orchids, ferns and begonias; and a water wall and ventilation system to reduce high summer temperatures by as much as 6°C, creating a dark and moist growing environment.

Under Li's direction there are four collection managers, who have collected plants starting from Taiwan, and crisscrossing China, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Australia and Africa. They have drawn up a 20-year development plan with the aim of preserving at least 25,000 species of living tropical plants. Currently the center has 12,179 species, including 5,972 orchids, 886 ferns and 1,319 Bromeliaceae.

The Taiwanese love orchids. They are the most diverse family of flowering plants, and are at the zenith of evolution. Most come from tropical Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America. Says collection manager Wang Yifu, who is in charge of orchids, the center currently has the Taiwan endemic species Haraella retrocalla, Saccolabiopsis wulaokenensis, and Bulbophyllum fimbriperianthium, as well as the rare Phaius takeoi. Rare species from overseas include the Jumbo Orchid (Phalaenopsis gigantea) from Java and Sabah, which with leaves as long as 90 centimeters is the largest of the moth orchids (genus Phalaenopsis); and from the Malay Peninsula, Phalaenopsis appendiculata, the smallest moth orchid, which has only twice been successfully transplanted from its natural habitat.

First-time visitors to the center are awestruck by the massive storage capacity and numerous world firsts. But Li can't help but sigh.

"These treasures once spread throughout the tropical rainforests are now like prisoners, isolated in adjacent spots. They may be our hope for restoring diversity to the wilds but that day is far off. Their habitats are being replaced by farms, but even existing farmland is still unable to sustain the world's ever-growing appetite." In fact, the center's restoration program is being implemented even now: three species that are near extinction are being intensively cultivated, with the aim of reintroduction into the wild within two years.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Taiwan boasts 4,100 indigenous plant species, at least 1,069 of which are endemic-unique to Taiwan-but many are nearing extinction in the wild. For instance, there are less than 100 individual Gentiana tentyoensis plants in the mountains of Hualien, and fewer than 50 of the Taipei-area fern Pteris wulaiensis are left. "When there are less than 1,000 individuals remaining of a species, it's obvious that they're facing the danger of extinction," says Li, stressing that there are many species out there that have been seen but not yet documented, and whether they still exist remains a mystery.

Taiwan has a Wildlife Conservation Act, but this act ignores the most basic and important part of the ecosystem: plants. Besides the impracticality of preventing people from going out and picking plants, there is the more disquieting problem of natural disasters permanently destroying habitat.

In August 2008, collection manager Wang Yifu was walking through the slopes of Beidawushan at an elevation of 700-800 meters, and accidentally stumbled over a never-before-seen orchid that reflected sunlight with fiery-red colors. After examination by experts from Taiwan and abroad, it was determined that he had discovered a new species. It was dubbed Cheirostylis rubrifolius.

But prior to its publication in November 2009, the habitat of Cheirostylis rubrifolius was destroyed in a serious landslide caused by August's Typhoon Morakot. Besides the two specimens gathered for preservation, all known remaining individuals, numbering less than 20, disappeared, and it is feared that they may be completely extinct.

"Sometimes when a newly discovered species is awaiting publication, a natural disaster can completely wipe it out," says Li. But Cheirostylis rubrifolius wasn't the only victim of Typhoon Morakot's blow against Taiwan's ecosystem: the fate of another species, the fern Adiantum meishanianum, hangs in the balance.

Amateur fern aficionado Wang Bizhao discovered Adiantum meishanianum in Meishan Village in Kaohsiung County's Taoyuan Township in 1983, but it was not until March 2008 that it was confirmed to be a new species in a paper by Taiwan Forestry Research Institute researcher Chiou Wen-liang.

Ferns have spores, which float everywhere with the winds and are thus able to propagate widely. But since the discovery of Adiantum meishanianum over 20 years ago, it has never been recorded in any other location, living in a tiny habitat range of 200 square meters. Conservation center collection manager Chen Chun-ming postulates that this may be related to its tendency not to reproduce until the ends of its leaves touch the ground.

Adiantum meishanianum grows only near a suspension bridge in Meishan Village near the South Cross-Island Highway. Though the bridge survived the flooding caused by the typhoon, the state of the adjacent river habitat remains unclear because the road was completely cut off and nobody has been able to reach the area since. This is distressing, and it makes the nine individual plants kept at the conservation center that much more precious.

Wang Yifu mentions that no scholar had laid eyes on Taiwan's endemic orchid Liparis amabilis since it was described by the Japanese botanist Noriaki Fukuyama in 1938. But in 2008, 70 years after its "disappearance," a man surnamed Lin discovered a plant in the mountains of northern Taiwan and sent it to the conservation center. When it bloomed in the greenhouse that March, it turned out to be the legendary Liparis amabilis. The center's personnel excitedly recorded everything they could about it, making it one of Taiwan's most precious documents on an orchid.

Saving medicinal plants

There's a sculpture at the entrance to the Climatron in the Missouri Botanical Garden: an indigenous person is carrying a basket filled with seeds, and another basket on the ground is filled with vials of modern medicine. This sculpture conveys a clear message: most drugs we need come from the plant world.

Li stresses that most of today's drugs are extracted from plants, and many sufferers of emerging diseases are awaiting new drug treatments. Hope lies in the rainforests, home of many plants we know nothing about. But of the 300,000 or so species of plants, no more than 5,000 have been researched for pharmaceutical purposes.

Says Li, there are about 25,000 orchid species around the world. Perhaps 3,000 of these have no leaves and do not photosynthesize, growing instead as tubers under the ground, only extending a flower stalk when it's time to bloom. These saprophytic orchids are symbiotic with fungi: the fungus enters the tuber to extract special nutrients, and the tuber gains nutrients from the dead fungus.

But due to recent large-scale logging and destruction, the fungi have lost habitat, and these non-photosynthesizing orchids are in turn facing a survival crisis. Despite advancing technology, there are few examples of saprophytic orchids being raised by artificial means. Gastrodia elata is one of those few.

Many are unaware that the valuable herbal remedy tianma from traditional Chinese medicine is in fact the tuber of an orchid, Gastrodia elata. Research has shown that orchids of the genus Gastrodia have many medicinal uses, but currently only Gastrodia elata can be farmed and mass produced, making it a medicinal cash crop.

However, returning most photosynthesizing orchids (whether terrestrial or epiphytic) to the wild is not a simple matter.

Let us consider the rare endemic terrestrial orchid Phaius takeoi. National Taiwan University technical specialist Jan Chen-han has spent years in the lab trying to grow over 1,000 individuals. But of over 400 orchid culture bottles he prepared, not one survived, perhaps because once the buds were returned to the wild, there were no suitable symbiotic fungi around for them. In addition, these orchids also depend on specific insects, rats, birds and bats for propagation; if these animals are no longer around due to habitat destruction, the survival of the orchids is in jeopardy.

Taiwan's vanguard

In February 2007, after the conservation center was approved for construction, Li was invited to take part in an international conference for directors of Southeast Asian botanical gardens. He saw that Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia had no national botanical gardens, and they were all experiencing headaches from shortages in research funding. Li, who believes that Taiwan should play an active unifying role in collecting and conserving tropical plants, moved that they hold the next conference in Taiwan.

The subsequent conference opened at the conservation center in November 2009, and in light of the passion that people from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have for begonias, he arranged for Dr. Peng Ching-I of Academia Sinica to give a special lecture, and at the same time launched a cooperative seed stock exchange program.

During the conference, Li proposed organizing a seed scientist training course, whose trainees would include mainly Southeast Asian seed scholars and Taiwanese researchers in related fields. And in October 2010, experts from Taiwan and abroad will be invited to lecture on ferns.

"The seed scientist training course will help impoverished countries create their own plant databases and even conservation centers, which promises synergistic results in future international seed exchange and live transplant efforts," he says.

Li often races against the clock to save plants, applying his keen eye, long-range thinking and decisiveness. Under his pioneering leadership, the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center is fast becoming Asia's most abundant botanical garden and one of the world's most important tropical plant sanctuaries.

But as he hopes to maintain a viable global seed stock, Li's greatest dream is for all these plants to grow once again in their native habitats, living as nature intended, in a blossoming world.

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