WOC Diary: Friday (Cribb Lecture)

On Friday, the lectures began in earnest. Characters from novels and magazines came alive before my eyes on the stage, and between sessions, I made some new friends.

Phillip Cribb, the curator of the Orchid Herbarium at Kew Gardens, is considered by many to be “top of the heap” in the orchid world. He spoke about the question puzzling everyone:

“Why are new orchids still being discovered?”

Unlike Alex Hirtz, Phillip Cribb does not believe that orchids are evolving rapidly. He believes that many were discovered long ago, but only recently officially “described”. This is true in some cases, but does not come close to accounting for the sheer number of new discoveries. In the last 25 years, an average 280 new species have been found each year, and in some years as many as 500. Cribb does not expect this astonishing number to decline over the next 25 years — as long as the last wild places in the world continue to be opened up to exploration and become accessible by car. He points out that some of the discoveries are happening in areas previously too remote or dangerous to explore, such as along cliffs or in former military zones; for example, paphiopedilum vietnamense was discovered only 40 km from Hanoi in a former minefield.

I found his arguments less persuasive than Hirtz’s, who actually lives where many of the new discoveries are happening and who has been directly involved in a significant number of them. As Cribb himself pointed out, most orchids are found in tropical areas, while most taxonomists are located in the temperate zones of Europe and North America. I wouldn’t be surprised if a dedicated and politically active conservationist like Cribb might find Hirtz’s theory slightly alarmingly. If new species really are popping up and colonizing new terrain, particularily terrain that has been disturbed by human activity, I suppose it could be viewed by some (especially the political masters of sensitive ecological areas) as counter to the idea that orchids are fragile and need to be protected. Personally I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but someone with a vested interested in stopping the protection of habitats might.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with Cribb on this point: Orchid habitat is in grave danger. Mount Kinabalu, for example, is the richest orchid habitat in south-east Asia. It is now an island surrounded by cultivation, and the most productive area on the mountain for orchids on the mountain is located 1,500 meters below the start of the protected area. He believes that we are a fortunate generation who are alive at a time when it is still possible to see wild places in the world. Future generations will only be able to experience these habitats by visiting “Botanical Zoos”.

It’s heartbreaking.