As habitat fragmentation and illegal collections threaten to wipe out some of the most beautiful and rare orchid species in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot (IBBH), scientists surveying the plants in Laos say extensive mapping and proper inventorying of the species in India is the need of the hour to save them.

Scientists who are studying the plants in the limestone cliffs of Laos (a part of IBBH) believe that identifying conservation priorities for the endangered flora in the Southeast Asian nation will also benefit India, given the common dangers of habitat fragmentation and the ruthless collection of the flowers for regional and international trade.

“Our main objective is to identify conservation priorities in Laos within the context of the highly threatened IBBH, with special focus on nearly 2,100 orchids found in this region,” conservationist Pankaj Kumar, a member of IUCN-SSC Orchid Specialist Group Asia, told IANS.

“In 1890, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker wrote a comprehensive account on the flora of British India but, since then, no one else has been able to produce such comprehensive floristic studies. We are heading towards the sixth mass extinction but how can anyone think of which species to prioritise and conserve if we don’t even know what species are found in India,” he questioned.

One of the most bio diverse regions of the world which continues to reveal biological treasures, IBBH encompasses 2,373,000 km of tropical Asia east of the Ganges-Brahmaputra lowlands. The Indian portion of the hotspot, straddling stretches of northeast India and the Andaman Islands, shelters around 400 species.

“Because IBBH includes parts of northeastern India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) and also parts of the Andaman islands, any kind of conservation issue in Laos fully applies to Indian orchids too, as many regions in northeastern India are also understudied due to inaccessibility,” Kumar explained.

The hotspot begins in eastern Bangladesh and then extends across northeastern India, south of the Brahmaputra river, to encompass nearly all of Myanmar, part of southern and western Yunnan Province in China, all of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia and Vietnam, the vast majority of Thailand and a small part of peninsular Malaysia.

In addition, it covers the coastal lowlands of southern China (in southern Guangxi and Guangdong), as well as several offshore islands such as Hainan Island (of China) in the South China Sea and the Andaman Islands in the Andaman Sea.

The scientist was part of a pilot expedition in northern Laos’ Vang Vieng district of Vientiane Province, initiated by Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG). Kumar and his colleagues, along with officials from Laos’ Ministry of Science and Technology, commenced joint field surveys in the nation.

Laos was the focus because it is one of the most understudied countries in the IBBH.

“During the course of just three field days in Vang Vieng, we confirmed 135 orchid species, of which one was new to science and a further nine were new records for Laos. These findings suggest that the known orchid flora of Laos will continue to grow with increased survey effort,” Kumar said about the findings published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa in October.

On India’s part, Kumar says it is crucial to conduct a fresh survey and prepare a proper inventory of orchids.

“Identify Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) on the basis of their relatively high diversity to accord better protection, conduct population assessment simultaneously and redlist all the species found in Indian IBBH,” Kumar, conservation officer, Orchid Conservation Section, Flora Conservation Department, KFBG Corporation, explained.

Kumar, along with Hassan Rankou from the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, was responsible for redlisting (incorporation into IUCN Red List of threatened species) seven species of Lady Slipper orchids from India, which is “just a small step towards a larger goal.”

India’s northeast is particularly important in this scenario. It harbours 856 orchid species overall, including the species stretching in to the Indian IBBH and other states.

Celebrated for their sheer elegance and beauty, these plants are much sought after for their medicinal as well as aesthetic value.

Be it the velvety-leaved jewel orchids or the tall-stemmed bamboo orchids, they are not just great to look at but also have important ecological roles. They provide food and shelter for ants and other insects, grow on trees and help recycle nitrogen in the atmosphere. As indicator species, they signal the health of ecosystems.

Incidentally, IBBH also harbours the largest human population of all the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with over 315 million people.

Kumar lamented the conservation bias in India: When it comes to conservation, people mostly look at animals and least towards plants.

“This is evident from the fact that India has Wildlife Protection Act which includes almost all animals in five schedules (out of a total of six that give varying degrees of protection) but only 14 plant species (out of nearly 18,000 flowering plant species) are included in sixth schedule. No one raises eyebrows on this bias,” he said. (IANS)