Pingtung plant shelter: the 'Noah's Ark' of our age

2019/08/10 16:34:58 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Li Chia-wei (李家維)

Li Chia-wei (李家維)

By Wu Po-wei and Ko Lin, CNA staff writers

A growing number of plant species are going extinct because of climate change, posing a serious threat to the planet. Once they are gone, they are lost forever.

Or maybe not.

A Taiwanese nongovernmental organization, the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center (KBCC), has quietly sought to combat the trend through its dedication to conserving plants, hoping ultimately to reintroduce endangered species into the wild.

The KBCC currently has a total of 33,309 plant species, mostly tropical and sub-tropical, making it the world's largest plant repository in terms of varieties, said Li Chia-wei (李家維), who heads the Pingtung County-based plant shelter.

According to Li, the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom currently has about 18,000 species, the Missouri Botanical Garden in the United States has 17,500, and the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in China's Yunnan Province 13,000.

(KBCC greenhouse)

Unlike other plant conservation programs, KBCC maintains live species instead of storing their seeds in a controlled environment, such as the approach adopted by the U.K.'s Millennium Seed Bank Project.

The center believes its approach gives endangered plants the chance to proliferate at the center and making it more likely they can be re-cultivated in their original environment.

Among the 33,309 plant species are those endemic to Taiwan, such as the critically endangered Lithocarpus formosanus, and Rhododendron kanehirai, which is extinct in the wild, according to the KBCC database.

The collection also includes several critically endangered plants found on Taiwan-held Orchid Island, such as Endiandra coriacea, Polyalthia liukiuensis, and Pinanga tashiroi.

Reaching out

This potential Noah's Ark has focused mainly on supporting local plant conservation efforts and serving as model for similar undertakings worldwide.

But it has also played active roles in advancing the plant preservation efforts of other countries, including the Solomon Islands, known for its rich and diverse flora.

(CNA file photo)

Li still fondly remembers his time there.

"Despite its moderate size, the country harbors over 7,000 native species of vascular plants," he said.

According to Li, the KBCC teamed up in 2013 with the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), a government-funded agency involved in foreign agricultural aid programs, on a project to help the Solomon Islands develop the ability to take inventory of and conserve its plant resources.

The challenges facing the project became quickly apparent after the Taiwanese team arrived in the country, Li said, citing for example the need to build a greenhouse to conserve living plants and having to bring in all of the necessary materials from Taiwan to make it.

There was no doubt, however, as to the project's importance during its five-year run to 2017 because of the threat to native plant species of massive deforestation for logging and to clear land for cash crops such as oil palm and cocoa.

"The logging business in the Solomon Islands is mainly run by the Chinese, so the majority of the logs are shipped there," Li said, noting that some of them were also destined for Taiwan.

Fruitful journey

The survey team, which comprised experts in botany, archived 5,000 different plant specimens, including a variety of orchids and other wild vascular plants that had never been identified before, Li said.

It also staged workshops and modernized the equipment at the government-run National Herbarium and Botanical Gardens and helped publish an illustrated survey of Solomon Islands flora to give the country a sound foundation for conservation and sustainability.

"Plant conservation knows no boundaries," Li said.

The team tried in 2016 to duplicate its success in the Solomon Islands in Sao Tome and Principe, which is also renowned for its rich ecosystem, but the African island country later broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and the project was abruptly suspended, the KBCC head said.

Before that happened, however, the Taiwanese team got hold of a native Begonia specimen that was on the verge of extinction, according to Li.

Pingtung's 'Noah's Ark'

That was fitting, considering that the KBCC has always aspired to be a Noah's Ark of tropical and subtropical plants, a vision Li shared with a dear, lost friend, he said.

That friend was Leslie Koo (辜成允), the sponsor of the center and chairman of Taiwan Cement Corp., who died at the age of 62 of head injuries after tumbling down a flight of stairs at a Taipei hotel in 2017.

(CNA file photo)

The plant shelter was an idea first conceived in 2006, during a friendly chat with Koo, and Koo, without any hesitation, agreed to sponsor the project within a week, Li said.

Koo provided land from the Koo family's farm in Gaoshu Township in Pingtung for the project, and today the KBCC, named after Koo's mother, has eight greenhouses spread over five acres there.

Li is grateful for the unconditional support he received from Koo during the conservation center's journey until Koo passed away.

"Without him, the KBCC would not have been born," he said, stressing he will always be grateful for Koo's contributions.

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