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Plants Face Rising Rate of Extinction
Public should be educated on the need to conserve rare and endangered species
by Yong Tiam Kui, New Sunday Times (Malaysia)

The latest IUCN-World Conservation Union biodiversity report indicates that Malaysia has more endangered plant species than any other country in the world - 681.

RARE PLANT ... This species of the keladi family (Araceae) is extremely rare, found only at some sites on ultramafic rocks in Sabah. Named Alocasia melo because of the melon skin-like texture (melo) of its leaves, it was first introduced to science In 1997 by Dr K.M. Wong and his colleagues, but already the main site is vulnerable to further deterioration due to logging activities in adjacent sites.

IN the last 50 years, about two per cent or about 170 of the estimated 8,500 species of flowering plants in Peninsular Malaysia became extinct.

This figure in itself doesn't sound alarming. But if the present rate of rainforest felling continues, the extinction rate could rise to 20 percent or more.
And there is reason to worry: in the 1960s, 73 per cent of our total land area (24 million hectares) was forested. By the 1990s, it had already dropped to 58 per cent (19 million ha).

Former Universiti Malaya ecology department head Professor Dr E. Soepadmo says only 40 per cent of the peninsula's natural forest cover still exist and the proportion is even lower in Sabah and Sarawak.

This is most unfortunate because the Malaysian rainforest, especially lowland rainforest, is incredibly where rich in biodiversity and that is where the greatest amount of deforestation has taken place.

Soepadmo says there are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 plant species in Malaysia compared to 5,000 in the whole of Europe, a land mass 20 times bigger. So, we stand to lose a much greater number of plant species when, say, a 500ha tract of rainforest is felled as compared to the equivalent area of forest in Europe.

"When a habitat is changed by intensive logging or conversion to other forms of vegetation, many plant species immediately fall into the endangered category," adds Soepadmo, who is now a research officer at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia.

The incredible biodiversity found in the rainforest is due to the amazing range and variety of habitats and local conditions found within even a small area of the rainforest which allows many new variants of plant species to evolve, specialise and survive.

A unique feature of the rainforest, says Universiti Malaya Rimba Ilmu co-ordinator Associate Professor Dr Wong Khoon Meng, is that many plant genera found in rainforests are represented by many different species.

A census of a 50ha forest study plot in Pasoh, in the peninsula, recorded 22 different species of Aglaia, 14 species of Shorea, 13 Aporusa, 10 Artocarpus, 11 Baccaurea, eight Calophyllum, five Canarium, five Castanopsis , six Chisocheton, five Cinnamomum, etc.

On Mount Kinabalu alone, botanists have recorded 73 plant genera that are each represented by 10 or more species, including 30 genera that are represented by 20 or more species! What's more, there are a total of 98 different species of figs, 88 species of Bulbophyllum orchids, 66 species of the jambu-relative Syzygium and 46 species of Lithocarpus oaks on the mountain.

And, unlike other forest types, Wong says, the rainforest also has a wealth of rare plant species. A plant species is said to be rare when its population is small and can be found only in one or very few places. It is also considered rare if it is only represented by a few individuals over a large area. In the 50ha study plot in Pasoh mentioned early, nearly 20 per cent of the tree species were represented by only 20 or fewer individuals and nearly 10 per cent had only five or fewer individuals.

Also, because many of these plant species are endemic, they easily become endangered when the habitat is disturbed or changed in any way. A species is said to be endemic when it is found naturally in only a single geographical area and nowhere else. For example, the genus Aleisanthia (which belongs to the coffee-family or Rubiaceae) is endemic to the peninsula.

There are only two known species of this genus: one, A.sylvatica, is only found in lowland forest in Ulu Kelantan, while the other, A. repestris, occurs only on the Klang Gates quartzite ridge, north-east of Kuala Lumpur. More than 26 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia's 2,830 tree species and anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the more than 3,500 tree species in Sabah and Sarawak are endemic. Some 70 per cent of these endemic tree species are endangered.
As much as 43 per cent of the 212 palm species in the peninsula and 40 per cent of the 290 palm species in Borneo are endemic.

Another major reason why the ICUN report lists such a high number of threatened plant species for Malaysia, says Wong, is the fact that we have more information about our flora than most of the other tropical countries.

So, he adds, it is possible that some of these tropical countries may have more endangered species than we do but it's not known because there's not been enough research and documentation.

"The situation is bad but we are not necessarily the worst country in the world. The problem is not restricted to Malaysia. It's true for all countries with high biodiversity.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that Malaysia and a few other countries like Brazil and Costa Rica are better documented than the other tropical countries.

"For instance, there is so little Information coming out about the state of biodiversity in Indonesia. We need to appreciate this background before we can explore the issue in the right way," adds Wong. He says it is important to conserve as many large forest areas as possible to ensure that we preserve as many breeding populations as possible and not just one or two specimens of a plant species.
WONG ... medicinal qualities

Thus, it is crucial that scattered patches of unspoiled "forest islands" are conserved within disturbed areas such as logging areas because a single patch of forest cannot capture the incredible range of habitats and environments that support the biodiversity of the rainforest.
"It is not enough to merely have a big Taman Negara here and an Endau Rompin there," adds Wong.

He also adds that fragments of forest that are too small may gradually become modified and lose their original species and character as more aggressive and light-loving weedy species start spreading in from the edges. Island-type habitats such as limestone hills, quartzite ridges, mountain peaks and areas of special vegetation, which are surrounded by very different environments, adds Wong, are of great importance and great care must be taken to conserve them as they are special centres of biodiversity.

Wong says almost 20 per cent of the 1,119 seed-plant species recorded on limestone hills in Peninsular Malaysia are not found anywhere else and 10 per cent are strictly limestone species. Nine of the 22 seed-plant genera endemic to the peninsula are restricted to the mountains of the Main Range.

Perak has more narrowly-restricted endemic tree species than any of the other States in the peninsula because of the large number of limestone outcrops and mountains that represent ecologically isolated, island-type habitats.

The 4,500 species of seed-plants and ferns that grow on Mount Kinabalu represent some 10 per cent of the entire vascular plant flora of the whole Malesian region. And, half of the 30 species of pitcher plants and 50 species of rhododendrons found in Borneo occur on Mount Kinabalu. Wong notes that regular disturbance to any forest system, such as logging or forest fires caused by people, will affect its biodiversity.

But habitat loss which occurs when a forested area is converted to other uses, such as plantation agriculture, is the main cause of extinction because there is no chance for rare and endangered species to survive once the natural habitat is destroyed.

There are at least three plant habitats in Malaysia that have suffered high extinction rates as a result of habitat disturbance - the Kinta region of Perak, species-rich limestone flora and montane forests. Sixty-six tree species endemic to the Kinta region have not been seen since the 1940s when forest in which it grew was cleared for opencast tin mining.

The clearing of forests surrounding species-rich limestone hills and other habitat disturbance have led to the extinction many endemic plant species. Sixteen of the plant species that were recorded in the limestone hills in the Kinta region in the 1880s have not been seen for over 50 years.

SINCE the opening up of Fraser's Hill as a resort in the 1920s, 13 native plant species have become extinct. Commercial collecting of wild plants such as orchids, pitcher plants, tongkat ali and kacip Fatimah is also endangering the survival of these species. It is estimated that more than two per cent or about 170 of the estimated 8,500 species of flowering plants in Peninsular Malaysia have become extinct in the last 50 years.

And, if the conservation of biodiversity is not taken seriously, Soepadmo warns that, we can expect the extinction rate of our plant species to rise to 20 per cent or more. Wong stresses the importance of public awareness of the need to conserve rare and endangered plant species in their natural environment. "If members of the public are not aware, they can unknowingly cause damage.

ENDANGER SPECIES A 10-years-old individual of Johannesteijsmannia lanceolata in the Rimba Ilmu, grown by Gardens superintendent Mustapha Mohamad. This species is known only at very few spots in Selangor and Perak

"We should not expect rare and endangered plants to be attractive or spectacular. They may have medicinal qualities that cannot be underestimated.

Soepadmo, likewise, says serious efforts must be made to educate all Malaysians, from Ministers to the man on the street on the need to reduce the terrible toll that we are taking on the environment with our wasteful modern lifestyle in the peninsula.

"In the rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak, there are no roads, no electricity and no piped water. We shouldn't blame the people for burning the forest to grow crops because that is how they make their living.

"Sabah is especially dependent on timber and other forest products because, unlike Sarawak, it does not have oil reserves. Here in the peninsula, where we have everything, we have to have so many cars and air-conditioners in the house.

"All this requires resources and every time we have to build a dam, we have to drown the forest. We have so many highways crisscrossing the peninsula. The width of the highway is at most 10m but an average of 200m of the forest have to be cleared on both sides.

"What I am trying to say is the majority of our forested areas can be saved for future generations but only if everyone, including State Governments and the public, do their bit to help," adds Soepadmo.

Clear too much of the forest, he says, and we risk destroying the entire ecological balance with consequences such the loss of precious water supply. It could also allow diseases that are currently confined to animal populations in remote forests to leap the species barrier and infect people.

"The forest is not merely a source of timber. Our water supply is also dependent on the forest.
"The virus which causes dengue fever was confined to mosquitoes and monkeys in the jungle faraway from populated areas. Dengue fever only began to spread widely in the 1970s when infected loggers carried it back to their kampungs."

News about man-eating tigers and elephant herds and wild boars rampaging through vegetable gardens, adds Soepadmo, are just some examples of what can happen when there is too much deforestation.

Soepadmo warns that plant species with potential medical applications could also be lost forever if we do not take serious steps to protect our natural heritage.

"Trees and wildlife cannot speak. They cannot organise protests. So we have to be wise enough to preserve some of our forest."

The loss of a species, notes Soepadmo, also results in the loss of genes that could prove valuable in the future.

Unheard of, two or three decades ago, AIDS is now a major health problem throughout the world and there is no known cure.

Soepadmo says pharmaceutical companies have screened thousands of plants and so far three appear to hold the potential for a cure for AIDS.

"Until now, there is no clinical method to cure AIDS, but in the past 10 years, three plants which contain compounds that can be used to slowdown or eventually cure the disease have been identified.

"One of them, the bitahgor tree (Calophyllum lanigerum var. austrocoriaceum) is native to Sarawak. It was not previously known to have any use, medical or otherwise. This illustrates the importance of conserving the biodiversity of rainforests as we cannot predict what mankind's needs will be in the future.

Soepadmo adds that it is possible that some of our 861 endangered plant species could also contain compounds that could be used to cure diseases and conditions that are currently considered untreatable.

And that's all. Many wild species may also form a gene pool for breeding resistance to diseases and pests into their domesticated relatives and have potential commercial value as ornamental plants or minor forest products.

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