WHY SAVE ORCHIDS UNDER THREAT?
By Jim Heath, Perth, WA
Here was this sane-looking manager at Western Power, telling me the company was spending $200,000 to rescue six types of orchids. Would I like to write something about it? Give me time to investigate, I told him. I wanted to find out if it made sense.
A month later, I knew it didn’t make economic or ecological sense yet the money had been wisely spent. The $200,000 went to the Plant Science and Micropropagation Unit in Perth. The orchid project is led by Dr Kingsley Dixon, a botanist with a long reputation replica watches for sale for saving endangered plants.
Left: Thelymitra mangenie Right: Epiblema grandiflorum
To save orchids, his group isolates the “helper fungus” for each one, grows thousands of plants and puts them in bushland sites. They back this up with tissue culture, cyrostorage of shoots, and DNA fingerprinting. It is painstaking work, with no shortcuts; and it all costs.
Why do it? I guessed there was some scientific incentive for saving these delicate, about-to-expire flowers: Drakaea elastica (the Glossy-leafed Hammer orchid), Caladenia huegelii (Grand Spider orchid), Epiblema grandiflorum ssp. cyanea (the Blue Babe in the Cradle orchid), Diuris purdiei (Purdies Donkey orchid), Diuris micrantha (Swamp Donkey orchid) and Thelymitra mangeniae (Cinnamon Sun orchid).
We’ve all read about the imperatives of biodiversity, the cancer-cures that may flow in the sap of some rainforest shrub. Could that be it? A lot of the information about biodiversity reduces to two assertions:
Biodiversity is needed as a life-support system for the planet and as a carrier of priceless genetic information.
Species are being lost at a horrifying rate.
We hear scary estimates about how many species are disappearing from our planet but those numbers may be nonsense. These estimates were based on the “species area curve” equation established by two researchers in the Florida Keys who counted the rolex replica sale number of species in a specific area under study. Soon ecologists started using the same equation on Amazon rainforests and claimed something like 50,000 species a year were being “lost”. However, to know how many species are lost, you have to know how many you started with.
Right: Drakea elastica
In all of this there was a factual problem. Over the past 500 years, almost 90 per cent of the forest along the Atlantic coast of Brazil has been cleared. But guess what? No one has found a single known species that could be declared extinct. Yet according to the “species area curve”, about half the known species in that Brazilian forest should have been lost.
“The scare about species extinction has been manufactured in complete contradiction to the scientific data,” declares Professor Julian Simon in his book The State of Humanity. “The highest proven observed rate of extinction until now is only one rolex replica sale species per year. Yet the ‘official’ forecast has been 40,000 species dying out per year in the century, a million in all. It is truth that is becoming extinct, not species.”
Even if species were disappearing at a great clip in the Amazon, what has this to do with orchids in Western Australia? The Amazon scare started a “Save Everything!” movement. If the Amazon numbers were true (few doubted them), in time our only companions omega replica sale might be cockroaches and rats. Under those conditions, saving orchids, or anything else, seemed a wonderful idea. But if the Amazon numbers are nonsense, there is no reason to panic about saving orchids.
If you want an example of an extinct Australian plant, the last Scarlet Snake Bush died in 1995. So extinction does happen here. There are 29 other known cases like that in Western Australia, if you go back 100 years. Most of those plants probably were wiped out in the great agricultural expansion in the first part of the 20th century (up to about 1930). Globally this is a “high” extinction rate. But at least those extinctions are facts.
Some people say we can’t afford to lose any species, no matter what species they are. Everything needs everything else, they say, to make nature balance. If that were right, it might explain why the six orchid species should be saved. Alas, no. We could pour weedkiller on all the orchids in Australia and do no ecological damage to the rest of the continent’s biology. But wouldn’t the natural ecological systems then become less stable, if we start plucking out species - even those orchids? Not necessarily. Natural biological systems are hardly ever stable and balanced anyway. Everything goes along steadily for a time, then rolex replica sale boom - the system falls apart and simplifies for no visible reason. Diverse systems are usually more unstable than the less diverse ones.
Biologists agree that in some places less diversity is more stable (in the Arctic, for example). Also, monocultures - farms - can be very stable. Not to mention the timeless grass of a salt marsh. In other words, there’s no biological law that says we have to save the orchids because they add diversity, and that added diversity makes the biological world more stable.
But back to the imperilled orchids. Is there any biological reason why we need them? “Orchids are at the top of the chain,” said Dr Dixon. “They use the system, like us. They’re actually useless to the system. Orchids harvest the environment around them. “But the scientific side is enormously interesting,” Dr Dixon continued. “Orchids are evolutionary pinnacles. Encapsulated within them is information about the processes of how life on earth evolved.
You can see in each species fantastic threads through time because they’ve had to build to an enormous degree of complexity. “There are no other plants on earth, collectively, that have these intriguing systems. All orchids that we know of have symbioses with fungi. Each orchid uses its own special fungus. There’s this one-on-one relationship.”
So maybe we do need them. Could the information in them have practical uses? A hard fact glares. Pharmaceutical companies can now put together their own molecules. Anyway, the economics of searching for medicines in “baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers” has always been poor. Spending the money on molecular biology gives much better odds than spending the money on saving species.
So even this last desperate reason for saving the orchids comes to nothing. That leaves us with the real reasons for saving them - saving plants we like. “What sort of world would we have without orchids?” Dr Dixon asked.
So for people who like orchids - and Western Australians are fond of their wildflowers - it does make sense for Western Power to help save some of them. It pleases people. It gives the community a lift, which includes 3300 Western Power employees.
And that is, indeed, the reason Western Power donated the orchid money. “The great thing about the Western Power program is that it’s been an exemplary model,” said Dr Dixon. “Nobody in Australia had injected that amount of money from their non-core business, into pure conservation. In this country, there’s a poor record of non-government support for endangered species. This is one of the rare examples.”
Right: Diuris micrantha
Should we save the orchids?
The philosopher Kant said: “That which is related to general human inclination and needs has a market price . . . But that which . . . can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., a price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity.”
So, there are three reasons for saving endangered species - we need them, we like them, we ought to.
People argue about how many species we need, although the species-loss numbers from the Amazon can’t be relied on in these arguments. The six orchid species in Western Australia were rescued because people like them. If a community knows it ought to save a plant or animal species, then other reasons aren’t called for.
Reprinted from “Orchids Australia” © December 1999
Photographs courtesy of Kings Park & Botanic Gardens, Perth.