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PIA Press Release

Int'l scientists race to conserve Compostela Valley's rafflesia

by Jimmy P. Abayon

Nabunturan, Compostela Valley (May 29) -- It's now or never.

Two international plant scientists pressed for a massive information and education campaign to raise awareness about the rafflesia mira, a parasitic flowering plant related to the species of the world's biggest flower and found only in the foothills of the mountain ranges of Maragusan in Compostela Valley.

International Filipino botanists Dr. Julie Barcelona of the Philippine National Museum and Dr. Daniel L. Nickrent, professor of Southern Illinois University in the United States of America, spent one week in the highland region of Maragusan to study the rare species middle of May.

Dr. Nickrent, a member of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the Botanical Society of America, described rafflesia mira as unique to Compostela Valley and not found anywhere else.

But he lamented that most people, especially in hinterland communities, had no knowledge about the significance of the parasitic flora to the environment and took its presence for granted.

"A massive information campaign is needed to raise awareness?to let the people know what they have," he said. "We hope the information gained from the study and the ideas we have (about the plant) will have increased awareness," the American taxonomist said.

During an inspection in one site in Maragusan's Caragan valley, the botanist said they found only a dismembered rafflesia bud that a local had lopped off from its vine believing it was only an ordinary plant.

"We did not find a bloom?we took the destroyed bud with us for our study," Dr. Barcelona, Adjunct Fellow of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, said.

The Filipino botanist said natives reported at least 11 rafflesia populations. The distance from one site to another forced the two scientists to inspect only three sites.

Dr. Nickerent believes the population in all 11 sites belonged to the same rafflesia mira species.

Genus rafflesia, with known 15 species, is found only in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is among the rarest to see and the most endangered flowers in South-East Asia.

Ten of these species are found in the Philippines, including Maragusan's rafflesia mira discovered by Filipino scientists led by Dr. Edwino Fernando and Dr. Perry Ong in the foothill village of New Albay in Maragusan five years ago.

Maragusan's Rafflersia mira was the fourth Rafflesia species identified in the Philippines, along with R. speciosa in Antique and R. manillana in Samar and Luzon.

Another group later published another name for Maragusan's rafflesia, R. magnifica. However, R. mira stands as the nomenclaturally valid name. An R. mira in bloom measures 45-60 cm in diameter, approximately the same size as R. speciosa's 45-56 cm, but larger than Luzon's R. manillana's 14-20 cm diameter.

One other species, R. schadenbergiana was last recorded in 1882 in Mt. Apo in Davao and widely believed to have been extinct until buds of the species was rediscovered in South Cotabato in 1994. In 2007, Dr. Barcelona confirmed the discovery of yet another population of R. schadenbergiana in Bukidnon;

The other recorded rafflesia species in the Philippines are R. lobata discovered in 2005 in the Mt. Igtuog and Mt. Sakpaw Central Panay mountain range; R. baletei in the Mt. Isarog and Mt. Iriga range of Camarines Sur which was initially collected by botanist Danilo Balete in 1991.

R. banahawensis of Mt. Banahaw which Dr. Barcelona later renamed Rafflesia philippensis Blanco after her investigation found that the species was first named by a Spanish plant collector in 1845.

R. panchoana of Mt. Makiling, a new species discovered in 2007 after additional field and herbarium work by scientist D. A. Madulid and coauthors on the Rafflesia known originally as R. manillana yielded the description of the new species; R. leonardi of sitio Kinapawan in the coastal town of Lal-lo in Cagayan Valley discovered in 2008; and rafflesia aurantis discovered in 2009 in the Quirino Protected Landscape, Quirino Province, Luzon.

Rafflesia schadenbergiana, known as "bó-o" to the Bagobo tribe and "kolon busaw" to the Higaonon tribe of Bukidnon, has the largest flower among the Rafflesia species found in the Philippines with a diameter ranging from 52-80 centimeters. It has also the second largest flower in the genus after R. arnoldii of Indonesia which stretches up to one metre and can weigh up to nine kilograms.

Rafflesias are usually found in rainforests on the slopes of mountain ranges. It is totally dependent for nourishment and physical support on one particular vine called Tetrastigma, related to the grapevine, for its survival. It is a disembodied flower without roots, leaves, and stem. What is supposed to be its body outside the flower consists of strands of fungus-like tissue that grow inside the Tetrastigma vine. It manifests itself as a tiny bud on the vine's roots or stem. Over a period of 12 months, it swells to a cabbage-like head that bursts around midnight under the cover of a rainy night. The bloom lasts for only two or three days. During its bloom, it exudes a stinking odour.

"The smell draws flies to the flower?but it is a mystery. The smells at times stink, at times they don't," said Dr. Nickrent.

The mountain ranges of Maragusan remain heavily forested. But Dr. Nickrent remains worried.

"People," he said, alluding to the general threat facing the Rafflesia. "With their exponential increase comes an increasing need for food and more spaces," he explains. Which translates into clearing the fertile forest lands.

Scientists say more than 1.3 acres of forest disappear from the Earth's surface every second or 75 acres in one minute, 108,000 acres daily, and more than 40 million acres a year.

Tropical rainforests are home to more than 50% of the world's plant and animal species including the Rafflesia.

This rare species, Dr. Nickrent explained, is a barometre of the health of the ecosystem. Once gone, he added, it would mean man's source of food and other sustenance is either dead or dying.

Compostela Valley tourism officer Christine Dompor has high hopes the survival of Maragusan's Rafflesia species might not be as bleak as its counterpart's elsewhere.

"We are heading towards that direction, to help protect and conserve this rare floral species," Dompor said. "Conserving the Rafflesia is a component of our eco-tourism campaign which, itself, depends on a healthy natural environment," she said.

Dompor said her office has had initial talks with authorities in Maragusan on conserving and protecting their Rafflesia population and has led a team to explore the Rafflesia site in Brgy. Mapawa on the foothills of Mt. Kandalaga, less than 15 kilometres from the town centre in 2008.

More explorations would be needed, she said, to officially identify other sites so that the tourism office and the municipal government of Maragusan could take action to protect and conserve the rare species.

Mayor Cesar Colina hasfenced the Mapawa Rafflesia site with a nylon rope to prevent unwanted incursion into the sloping foothills. The area fenced though is small and covers only the immediate area. Dompor is optimistic about the mayor's gesture.

As well, she believes the country has enough laws to protect the Rafflesia.

Section 27 of Republic Act 9147 prohibits the collection, possession, transport and trading of all Rafflesia species listed as a critically endangered species under DENR Administrative Order #2007-01 on pain of 6-12 years imprisonment or a P100,000-1,000,000 fine.

Still a lot has to be done, she said. Until then, the tourism officer added, the office is on a "wait and see" position. (PGP-Tourism Services Section/Comval) [top]

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