Continuing Thoughts on Conservation/Preservation
Issues, December, 1999

- by Carson E. Whitlow

What is difficult about recognizing that if we are to enjoy even part of what the world was in the recent past, it takes both land set-aside and artificial programs/environments to maintain it?

We need large contiguous tracts of land in order to maintain at least a buffer to the change in environment brought about by deforestation/clearing/alternate land use of the surrounding area and to allow for the greatest genetic diversity. I support this wholeheartedly, except for looking at it as the only approach or solution.

For orchids, we have to remember that establishing or re-establishing them is only going to be successful if the factors necessary for reproduction are there - pollinator, appropriate mycorhiza, etc. The presence of plants is not necessarily the indictor for established populations.

Artificial environments, such as botanical gardens and private collections, offer areas for specialized propagation of plants. Plants that no longer exist in the wild or are very rare in nature are especially applicable to this alternative. In some cases this is the only alternative to extinction. Paph. delenatii is a good example - until recently it only existed in cultivation, the entire world population arising from only one plant. Fortunately it has been "rediscovered."

It also needs to be recognized that plants that grow under cultivation do not necessarily carry the genetic material which would provide them the ability to survive in the wild. Seed banks are of great value but it must be recognized storage time and the media on which the plants are grown are selective mechanisms. And everyone recognizes that plants selected for commercial purposes do not usually represent the species in the wild.

Likewise, in the wild, the genetic interchange and diversity which existed, no longer exists and barriers to the interchange occur by discontinuity of ranges brought about by habitat change. Populations become isolated and in time (eons) may possibly undergo speciation. But, in the most probable case, will become extinct due to changing environmental conditions and limited genetic material. These changes currently are so rapid that natural mutations which may overcome some of the factors cannot occur rapidly enough. However, if you really want to shake up field botanists and other conservation/preservation types, just suggest the introduction of genetic material from plant populations outside the area to broaden the genetic base, i.e., to bring about greater diversity and improve the potential for survival.

Whether we recognize it or not, Mother Natures is always at work - within the conditions that exist. Of all the animals, man has perhaps brought about the greatest change to these condition so far. Man, however, is a minor force compared to others that shape the earth and its environment. Man is also nothing more than another animal making his impact on the world and using what Mother Nature gave him. I think Rickje Leung(1) made a very astute comment: "Paphiopedilum rothschildianum is now at the most successful time during (its) evolution history. Consider the case that P. rothschildianum have already occupied (passively) every continent in the world, in nearly every climate zone. They may never be distributed as "widespread" as now." As some insects are critical to pollination and the survival of a number of species, man may have taken over the roll of pollinator and symbiont for some of the more attractive species. These species will survive as long as they are of use to man, then be discarded unless some evolution occurs to continue their value. (One may ask if introducing a rare species to areas where it may colonize and become abundant is appropriate or not - and the criteria for such a decision.)

We also need to recognize that extinction is as much a fact of life as our own mortality. In fact, man wants and works for the extinction of those organisms that interfere with him, his well-being or his survival.

Land use, emphasis areas in botanical gardens, taste in private collections and the "life span" of any of these is all subject to change. We have seen park and wild areas being opened to motorized vehicles, camping and logging. We have seen botanical gardens change from being a strong source of information and material on one plant family to that of another and cater more to the public than to the plants. Private collections are the most volatile, but are also by far the most numerous. We have to recognize that none of these are unchangeable or permanent but all have their place.

If we are to preserve our plant and animal heritage, at least in some part, we have to recognize that it is not going to be by just one simple approach. It takes many approaches, which compliment and supplement each other. We also have to accept that we cannot save everything. We have to all work together, each bringing in their own specialty, so that major elements will not end up missing.

(1) Orchidguide Digest, Volume 01: Number 144, Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Carson E. Whitlow
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Adel, IA 50003-4491

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