An international group of scientists has launched an urgent call for coordinated action to save plants of the genus Rafflesia, which has the largest flowers in the world. The initiative comes on the heels of a new study published this week that found most of the 42 species in the genus are critically threatened with extinction.
Only one of these genera is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Rafflesia magnifica. But more than two-thirds (67%) of plant habitats are not protected and are at risk of destruction, according to the research published in the scientific journal. Plants, people, planet.
Rafflesia is a parasite that infects tropical vines in the forests of Southeast Asia, in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. For most of its life cycle, it is hidden from view, existing as a system of hyphae that invade its host. After a period of time, the parasite produces a cabbage-like bud that penetrates the bark of the vine and eventually forms a giant five-lobed flower, up to one meter in diameter. This produces a foul odor of rotting flesh to attract pollinating flies, earning it the alternative name “corpse flower.”
With such an unusual life cycle, Rafflesia plants remain poorly understood, and it is believed that no new species have yet been recorded. In order to better understand the vulnerability of these unique plants, a group of scientists has established the first coordinated global network to assess the threats facing Rafflesia.
The study results revealed that all 42 Rafflesia species are threatened: based on criteria used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, scientists classified 25 species as “critically endangered”, 15 as “vulnerable” and two as “vulnerable”. For this reason, researchers recommend adding all Rafflesia species to the menu immediately The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
“This new study highlights how global conservation efforts focusing on plants have lagged behind efforts involving animals. “We urgently need a joint, cross-regional approach to save some of the most precious flowers,” says Dr. Chris Thorogood, Deputy Director of Oxford University Botanic Gardens and one of the team. magnificence in the world, many of which are now on the brink of extinction,” the authors of the study.
Rafflesia has very limited geographic distributions, making it particularly vulnerable to extinction due to the destruction of the few existing habitats. The study found that many remaining populations have only a few individuals left, located in unprotected areas at high risk of converting to agriculture. Scientists point out that attempts to propagate Rafflesia in botanical gardens have had only limited success so far, making habitat conservation an urgent priority.
The team proposes a four-point action plan for governments, research centers and conservation organizations:
- Greater protection of Rafflesia habitats, targeting the most vulnerable populations. Oxford University says Southeast Asia has the fastest disappearing forests on the planet, and many of Rafflesia’s best-known inhabitants are dangerously close to growing human settlements;
- A better understanding of the diversity found in Rafflesia, to guide decision-making. We cannot protect what we do not know exists, so sampling campaigns and genetic analyzes are needed to understand how many species of Rafflesia actually exist;
- Develop methods for successfully propagating Rafflesia beyond its native habitat. This can include grafting Rafflesia-infected vines onto uninfected vines, to protect species whose habitat is likely to be destroyed;
- Introducing new ecotourism initiatives to engage local communities in the conservation of Rafflesia. Raising awareness among local residents and training tourism and conservation guides to assist in this effort.
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