|N. Aristolochioides – Named after the beautiful Aristolochia flowers which it resembles. It is endemic to West Sumatra.|
Conserving and protecting endangered and extinct plant species through tissue culture offers the only hope for long term survival.
The word Malesia may seem somewhat strange to people who are not of a botanical persuasion, but actually it’s quite a simple scientific term that is used to describe the floristic region covered by the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, and the archipelago of islands stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea.
The climate throughout much of the region is consistently hot and humid with very high rainfall. Charles Darwin, on a visit to Borneo, described it as, “One great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself”. To my mind, one of nicest descriptions of our climate is that we have two seasons – a wet season and an even wetter season – quite appropriate for a region that can get up to 5 metres of rain per annum!
Malesia has a very high proportion (14%) of endemic plants (found nowhere else in the world) whilst 27% have their centers of distribution primarily in Malesia. One of the explanations for the high number of endemic plants in this area is that the region is composed of so many islands numbering well over 20,000 and this is very important for the evolution of new species. In such a large group of islands many plants became isolated from their parent stock and evolved into new forms. New Guinea, the largest island in the group (and second largest in the world, after Greenland), shares some plants with nearby Australia, but also contains an amazing 124 endemic genera. Borneo, only slightly smaller, has 59.
N. Jacquelineae – A rare species found only in the cool mossy forests of the mountains of West Sumatra.
The largest, and arguably the most famous plant group in the region is the family Orchidaceae, with over 4,000 described species and undoubtedly more as yet undiscovered. There are many beautiful (and sometimes bizarre) plants that are highly valued as ornamentals including the tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes), as well as plants with medicinal properties, many of which, undoubtedly, are so far undiscovered by scientists.
|N. Inermis – This unusual species is native to the mountains of West Sumatra. It traps insects by means of the sticky surface on the inside of the pitcher.|
Threats and Regulations
Whilst some regulatory measures have been put in place to protect wild plants and animals, it is unlikely that these methods will, on their own, protect such endangered species from eventual total extinction from their wild and native habitats. The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has made considerable contributions to the protection of plants and animals in their native habitats and all of the Pitcher Plants are listed within the Convention with varying degrees of importance and protection. In general, the Convention bans the export or movement of listed species and can carry very heavy penalties.
|N. Villosa – Growing only the upper slopes of Mount Kinabalu and neighboring Mount Tambuyukon in Sabah, the pitchers of this species are exceptionally resilient and can last for over a year.|
|N. Attenboroughii – Found only on a single mountain on Palawan Island (Philippines), this species is named after the famed television presenter and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough.|
The tissue culture of Pitcher Plants normally starts with the collection, from the wild, of a few seeds which in no way threatens the viability of the wild populations. And from these few seeds, many tens or even hundreds of thousands of cloned plants can be relatively cheaply produced, on an almost indefinite basis, without ever needing to again take seeds from wild populations.
It seems likely that for some very sought-after and endangered species of Pitcher Plants, tissue culture offers the only hope for long term survival together with the ability to re-introduce them into the wild after they have become totally extinct. This practice of re-introduction has already been done in Sarawak.
Tim Hatch has lived in Sarawak since 1977, working in the natural sciences and agriculture. He is now Research Director of Malesiana Tropicals, a large biotechnology company.