Orchid conservator Patana Thavipoke:
"Few plant collectors plan for the future"
Dr. Patana Thavipoke is dedicated to finding the perfect growing conditions for wild orchids to prevent them from extinction. It took a while before he found the perfect conditions for himself to thrive. It was not before he turned 37 that he got his job at the prestigious Mahidol University near Bangkok. That was in 1998. “Here I have no boss. I can choose what I like to do, and I have time for orchid conservation.”
We meet at his laboratory at the Faculty of Environment and Resource Studies. In this artificial environment he fosters millions of seedlings of endemic orchids. Their 'breeding ground' consists of glass or plastic containers, carefully sterilized and most of them sealed. Their reaction to varieties in light, temperature, medium and fertilizer are closely watched and registered by dr. Patana and his students.
When the seedlings are mature enough, Patana takes them to his property in the mountainous forests of Northeast Thailand. “I try to naturalize the orchid seedlings mostly in my garden. There are too many obstacles to do that in their natural habitat. My neighbour has tried to reintroduce orchids to the jungle. Most of them died of neglect. The few that survived long enough to flower have eventually been collected by villagers. I therefore prefer to grow the seedlings in my garden. I do have some plants, found on fallen trees in the forest nearby, that are now happily thriving and even forming seed pods. My hope is that their seeds will find suitable trees in the nearby jungle to finally grow naturally.”
Dr. Patana: “I have been surrounded by orchids all my life. My grandfather already grew cattleyas. I have always loved plants.” Nevertheless he started making a living from fish. “I studied oceanography, but I didn't like to be on a boat. Back in those days boats were very uncomfortable. No bathroom, and I was seasick all the time. Besides, raising fish means you have to pay them attention constantly. If not, they die. Plants can also grow without your presence.”
Having noticed the pollution involved with commercial fisheries, he decided to study environmental science in the United States. After graduating he returned to his former job in Thailand, but he longed for further specialization. With a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service he departed for Hamburg to do his PhD in ecotoxicology.
Patana: “I took my time, and stayed in Hamburg for almost seven years. My advisor emphasized that I should focus on low-tech solutions, because at that time Thailand was not ready for hi-tech. That was good.”
On his return to Thailand, he not only brought his acquired knowledge, but also orchids that he had been propagating at home in his free time.” Unfortunately most of the plants didn't survive the temperature shock. The 40 degrees in Bangkok was too much.
At Mahidol University his scientific work is concentrated on ecotoxicological studies and the production of nano-biofungicide and bacteriocide. However, he does contribute to studies on orchid conservation. “I do research on suitable techniques for in vitro propagation of Corybas ecarinatus, Bulbophyllum lobbii complex, Anoectochilus spp. and Thunia bensoniae. Just for my own curiosity I experiment with a few additional rare ones, like Bulbophyllum polliculosum, Dendrobium garettii, Eulophia flava, and Habenaria carnea 'alba'. Since I don't deal with mass propagation of these plants, I have only a small number of seedlings that normally end up in my garden. I do not plan to start reintroduction programs for any Thai orchids, though. The reason is the difficulty to verify the origin of these plants, since I do not collect them myself.”
Illegal trade in wild orchids is big busines
Dozens of pick-up trucks are waiting on the temple grounds near an obscure Thai-Cambodian border crossing. As soon as Cambodians on rickety motorbikes arrive with their loads of forest plants, the Thai traders jump on them to inspect their harvest. Plants and money change hands rapidly, and off they go, the pick-up trucks. Off to the 'legal' markets, where customers pay amounts of money that the Cambodian reapers can only dream of.
In 2015 Edward Webb and Jacob Phelps from the National University of Singapore described the scale of the looting of wild ornamental plants in Southeast Asia. In the Thai illegal trade alone they found more than 400 species, mostly originating from the neighbouring countries Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Over 80% of them were wild orchids, some even new to science, some registered as threatened.
Some years ago Jaap Vermeulen, Jacob Phelps and Patana Thavipoke described two new Bulbophyllum species, obtained from Bangkok's Chatuchak market, a notorious place for trade in poached plants like ferns, cycads and orchids. Patana: “Nowadays most wild orchids come from several sources, including Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and as far as Indonesia and the Philippines. There is hardly any trade in Thai endemic orchids, as most of the remaining natural populations is in reserved forests and national parks.”
The illegal trade in wild orchids has become a multi-million business, which threatens hundreds of plant species with extinction. Patana: “Most plant collectors have no feeling for conservation. Only a few are clever and plan for the future.”
March 2019, by Karolien Bais, image Karolien Bais and Patana Thavipoke
What makes people so fascinated by a certain type of plant that they spend their whole life searching for it? Where does their perseverance come from? I have interviewed botanical amateurs and professionals about their lives and passions. Enjoy their stories!
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Malaysian botanist Francis S.P. Ng, plant lover, researcher and voluminous writer, described 2,800 species in Tree Flora of Malaya.
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Annop Ongsakul is a prominent breeder of gingers. But when time and money permit, he is out on plant expeditions with fellow ‘strange people’.
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IT-specialist by training, but palm lover by heart: Chalermchart Soorangura, proud collector of palm species. He propagates threatened species for conservation.
Plant collector and landscape designer Surath Vanno treasures all plants as great works of art. And artfully he displays his collection in Bankampu Tropical Gallery in Bangkok.
A black or green water lily? It is now in the making by the Thai expert breeder Nopchai Chansilpa: “I like to experiment.”
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In Taiwan he grew up with peony and sweet pea. He even kept a tulip in the fridge. But plant searcher Charlot Teng became gripped by tropical flora. That passion led him to many jungles.
Thai scientist Patana Thavipoke tries to establish the most favorable breeding conditions for wild orchids, as their natural habitat is rapidly decreasing.
Lookfad Panan, specialist in fragrant trees, searches in the forest for unique items. “If I can buy a plant in a shop, anybody can. That’s why I don’t look for plants in nurseries.”