Dr Peter Wilkie: Botanic Garden fighting to save the rainforest from the scorched earth of human activity

Dr Peter Wilkie doing fieldwork in a Malaysian rainforest
Dr Peter Wilkie doing fieldwork in a Malaysian rainforest
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Recognised as a major provider of biodiversity expertise, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has been invited this month to join a workshop in Indonesia hosted by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The task: to develop a programme capable of understanding and, ­ultimately, conserving the biodiversity of Wallacea, a globally-unique hotspot that has intrigued scientists and laymen for more than a century.

Dr Peter Wilkie is a Tropical Plant Taxonomist, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Dr Peter Wilkie is a Tropical Plant Taxonomist, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

As a researcher who has worked in Indonesia and Malaysia for more than 25 years I have seen, at first hand, pristine forests laden with plant ­species, humming with the sound of animal and insect life and with crystal clear streams, quickly turn into scorched, scrub forest with muddy clogged-up rivers where massive soil erosion makes it suitable only for the most weedy species to thrive.

The forests that once supported local communities are quickly becoming impoverished. Action is required to stop the devastation before it is too late.

The rainforests hold an amazing proportion of the world’s species diversity. Covering only about six per cent of the land surface of Earth they account for an estimated 50 per cent of all known animal and plant species and 75 per cent of arthropods.

Understanding the response of ­biodiversity to environmental change is key to delivering economic development and improved livelihoods that will also maintain biodiversity and the benefits it provides.

RBGE has worked in rainforests around the world for more than 50 years, undertaking inventories, describing new species and publishing scientific papers, plant reference books and identification guides. The baseline information we publish is the foundation on which almost all plant research is built and is used by ecologists, conservationists, geneticists, modellers and biodiversity managers.

The exciting new initiative by NERC to help develop a programme to understand the biodiversity and ­evolutionary responses to environmental change in Wallacea has been widely welcomed by the research community. Wallacea is named after the ­British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who first observed distinct species distribution patterns in the area. It is the biogeographic term for the group of largely Indonesian islands between two continental shelves, one containing biodiversity with a strong Asian influence and the other with a strong New Guinea and Australian influence.

It is separated from both by deep water and has never been joined to either. Wallacea is internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot and covers almost 350,000 sq km. It is rich in species that occur nowhere else on Earth – with about 15 per cent of plants and half of ­vertebrate ­species only found here. It is also home to the Molucca islands, often referred to as the Spice Islands, once the major supplier of mace, nutmeg and cloves to the world.

Across the tropics large areas of pristine forest are being destroyed. Wallacea is no exception, with an estimated eight per cent of its forest having been cleared between 1990 and 2005. The population is projected to increase and this will put further pressure on these pristine forests. What is particularly worrying is that the rate of ­species discovery and description is not keeping up with the rate of forest and species loss.

It is clear that the planet is changing and that biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate because of human activities. How this changing environment will affect the ­ability of humans to survive and thrive in the future is unknown. Plant diversity has given us so much and Wallacea continues to play its part. Plants do not function in isolation, however, and are part of a complex ecosystem built up over millions of years.

Plants are intimately linked to pollinators, seed dispersers, soil and climate and a myriad of other environmental factors: a point recently highlighted in a Friends of the Scotsman article from the John Hutton Institute on the role of soil in ecosystems. By bringing together UK and Indonesian researchers, we can gather data on the many different parts of the ecosystem jigsaw. This can help us better understand how biodiversity and ecosystems are responding to environmental change and allow us to deliver evidence-based sustainable approaches to economic development and biodiversity protection, conserving the unique qualities of this enigmatic region.

Dr Peter Wilkie is a tropical plant taxonomist, the Royal Botanic ­Garden Edinburgh.