Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Flora and Fauna dispersal

1. This semester I am once again lecturing Economic Botany to MSc students. Altogether there are 29 students who registered this 3-credit course consisting mostly Malaysians, one Indian national and three Arabs. Some of the most challenging questions that I faced year in and year out was about how plants and animals species were dispersed from one continent or country or region to another. The easiest answer was to give credits to the European colonialists who plundered the whole world five or six centuries ago in search of spices, cotton, silk, minerals and heavy and hard-wood timbers.

2. Notable among them were the Portuguese and Spanish armadas which sailed east and west from the Iberian Peninsula under their rich and adventurous patrons in search of spices, silk and other oriental goods. At least we learnt the Portuguese sailed to the coast of Brazil, coasts of Africa via the cape of God Hope, to Goa in India, Melaka, in the Malay Peninsula, Macau in China, etc. The names like Vasco da Gama etc were on our lips. The Spanish were in South America and Central America, the Philippines etc. Magellan who was a Portuguese but sailed under the Spanish flag came to the Philippines and was killed there in the local disputes. The French, British, Belgians, Germans, Dutch etc came later to the east......and they claimed their colonies till the 20th century.

3. I told my students the Spanish brought Achras zapota or Mersawa manila, various species of Annona or Durian belanda (why was Annona reticulata was attributed to the Dutch?), Ananas comosus to cite a few from the tropical America to our part of the World. The Chinese and possibly the Champas brought us Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that become our National Flower. The Chinese also brought maiize or corn (Zea mays) from South America to the Philippines. Various animals were introduced too either from China and the East to the West and from the New World to various continents and countries.

4. Later I discovered that the Chinese explorers introduced the Asiatic hens to Central America, sea otters to New Zealand, Ficus religiosa to Australia, Cocos nucifera from the South Pacific to all parts of the World. Rosa laevigata was introduced from China to California, the Tajikistan ponies and pigs were introduced to many continents ......etc. Of course the British introduced camels to Australia. The Chinese too were the early settlers in many parts of South-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South, Central and North America ...but not to Europe. Unlike the Westerners who came to trade and spread Christianity, the earlier Chinese traders and explorers didn't want to spread Buddhism to the natives of the continents that they visited.

5. Of course in the 15th to 20th centuries when the Chinese started to isolate themselves, the Europeans had their days and decades. The Europeans explorers learnt from the Chinese and they did with diplomacy and wars. They fought each other to control the products from the East. They introduced many plant and animal species from all parts of the continents to other continents. They globalised the flora and fauna. In the Malay Peninsula they offer protection to the warlords in exchange for tin ores and other minerals, including spices and hard and heavy timbers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hunting for Porpax and Nepenthes at Langkawi

1. About a month ago friends from Langkawi emailed Prof. Che Aziz of Lestari several pictures of an amazing orchid and monkey cup from Gunung Machinchang. Subsequently Prof Che Aziz emailed me and I was so excited to view an orchid which I have never seen before and a new record of monkey cup from Langkawi. In 1981 I collected Nepenthes mirabilis from Kubang Badak paddy field, the only known nepenthes species from this archipelago.

2. On 15th January accompanied by Prof. Che Aziz and Ku Ismadi we took the cable car and alighted at the middle station and walked up to the top station through the valleys and boggy forests. We came across stands of Vatica cinerea (Dipterocarpaceae), climbing bamboo, Dinochloa malayana, Livistona ?saribus (Palmae), an elegant Hoya, many other palms and gingers and many other trees, shrubs and herbs.

3. We came to a place where Ku Ismadi observed and photographed Porpax elwisii (Orchidaceae) and we started our hunt for it. We did for about half-an-hour and despair started to creep in our mind, until Prof. Che Aziz took his camera to photograph a lichen, Parmotrema sp. and inside the screen there appeared the amazing green pseudobulbs of the orchid. The top of pseudobulb has radiating white lines; the 1- to 2-leaves have dried and one pinkish flower was also drying. No wonder we had tough times to locate the orchids .....the populations were drying!

4. Then we climbed upwards a hill and came to one of the many summits and we were welcomed by stands of Nepenthes sanguinea, the new record for Langkawi. We collected some specimens and took many pictures. The hill has many more orchid species of Dendrobium. Bulbophyllum and others but most are sterile ....not the flowering time! We were delighted with our finds.

5. The next two days I went hunting for N. mirabilis where I collected some 30 years ago at Kubang Badak. We were met with cows and buffaloes grazing there. We saw sparse vegetation and the leaves of Licuala spinosa were grazed by the buffaloes. We searched and searched and failed to find a stand of it. We asked the locals and still we could not locate it. The area has changed to orchards of bananas. mangoes and rambutans etc. According to the locals, once upon a time there were scattered populations but now they seem gone. I was frustrated as I think I have witnesses a local extinction of N. mirabilis in Langkawi. Ku Ismadi promised to look for it and deep in my mind is still there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Three Foundations

1. This morning we celebrated the 10th Anniversary of Emkay Foundation. Apparently it was established on 10th January 2001 with the mission to offer helps to the less-privileged in education, health, sports & welfare, amongst others. In his press statements the Chairman reemphasised his desire to give back what he got from the community to the less privileged communities and the environment. In the last 10 years the Foundations had spent millions in education of the Orang Asli communities, established dialysis centres etc. Many donours came forward to contribute donations to the Foundation for its activities in the next phase.

2. The other Foundation that received donations is the Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation which stated its 5-year future activities that include an extension of 100 meter tunnel to the existing one and also to reintroduce the Orang utan to the BJ Island. This is an experiments to be undertaken by the Foundation to introduce the Orang utan to the wild. The BJ Island includes a Research facility to monitor the behaviour and biology of the introduced Orang utans.

3. Pulau Banding Foundation also received donations from well-wishers for its 5-year activities that include the promotion of Belum-Temenggor forest complex for the benefits of ecotourism in Perak. The Foundation also plan to initiate a few research projects to understand the biology and ecology of the vast tropical forests and aquatic ecosystems.

4. The Advisor of the Pulau banding Foundation and the Chairman of Emkay Foundation and the Bukit Merah Orang utan Island Foundation promised to spend his energy and interests to ensure that the three foundations would be on an excellent footings to address what the foundations have promised to address in the next 5 years for the benefits of the less-privileged communities, Orang utans and the environment and biodiversity in the country.

5. These visions and missions augur very well for the well-being and welfare of the targeted communities, the conservation of Orang utan and the potential of ecotourism in Upper Perak and Malaysia, in general. I wish all the best of luck for the foundations and pray that many more charity-lovers and philantropists to come forward and donate some funds for these good cause,

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Year of Forest

1. Last year 2010 was the year of biodiversity. The year was celebrated with many events such as symposia and seminars that discussed the biodiversity issues. The meeting at Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun discussed the fate of fragile biodiversity and yet there were not many optimisms expressed on the fate of dwindling biodiversity.

2. Closer to home it was the same fate that befalls biodiversity as it was in 2009. The government and her officials paid lip-services to biodiversity as it did not promise income-generating. The officers in the ministries also didn't address biodiversity as they only followed the fancies of their bosses. It was during the time of Dato' Subuh Yaasin when he was the Sec-general of MONRE that biodiversity received some encouragements.

3. This year is the year of the forests. While the arboreal and temperate forests have not much to celebrate, the tropical forests have much to offer and deliberate. Every month more and more tropical forests in Amazonia, Madagascar, Central Africa and Indo-Malesia suffer in the hands of tree-cutters, loggers and unsustainable developers. In Malaysia it is not much different over the last decade as more ecosystems and species are put in peril.

4. But the year is here to stay to celebrate in what-ever form. I must say in the last decade the Department of Forestry Peninsular Malaysia with the assistance of all State Forestry Departments had embarked on a challenging scientific expeditions to generate biodiversity data to help them manage the remaining forests in a very sustainable manner. It is not impossible to achieve it if ones put some thoughts and sincerity and accountability in it.

5. Yet the forests in Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Perak, Kedah, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan are regenerating at a pace too slow for the annual coupe to allocate. That is possible as the tree-cutters and loggers didn't follow the strictest prescriptions when felling the timber trees. So much so river corridors were not observed and the effects on wildlife and seedlings including the regenerants were not monitored.