When the Botanical Survey of India published the first comprehensive orchid census of the country last year, Arunachal Pradesh emerged as its top contributor. It was no surprise because nearly half (612 out of 1256) of India’s orchid species can be found in the Northeastern state — and there is a strong possibility that there could be many, many more.
In fact, just this month, there is confirmation of two new species of orchids (Thrixspermum japonicum and Gastrochilus platycalcaratus) from the state’s Ziro Valley. Reason enough for the state to realise that it is not only important to document its diverse orchid population but to understand and assess the threats that it faces.
On Tuesday, a year-long project to assess the status of orchids in Arunachal Pradesh was initiated with the government signing a Memorandum of Understanding with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) India to create a Red Listing of orchids at the state level.
While IUCN Red Listing is a global process to assess the risk faced by different species, state level assessments are done if species are endemic to a certain area.
“Arunachal Pradesh has the highest diversity of orchids in the country — and over the next twelve months, orchid experts will bring realtime data from the field,” says Dr NM Ishwar, Program Coordinator, IUCN India. The Department of Environment and Forest is the nodal department for the execution of the project.
“Much of Arunachal Pradesh is covered by thick forests, yet to be touched by human habitation,” says Khyanjeet Gogoi, who, along with the Forest Department’s Koj Rinya and Santosh Kumar Reddy, discovered the two new species in 2018 and 2019 during an orchid translocation project.
“The diversity of orchid species in Arunachal Pradesh is because of its topography. You get all kinds of forests — alpine, sub-alpine, temperate, tropical and sub-tropical leading to a flourishing of different species of orchids,” says Gogoi.
The IUCN project will be led by two orchidologists from Arunachal Pradesh: Ona Apang and Jambe Tshering, whose primary role will be to identify and classify the orchids. After that, an online database will be made in terms of population, distribution, occupancy of different species as per the IUCN rules. “Then there will be two levels of peer review before it is finally accepted,” says Dr Ishwar.
“It’s a crucial development but I am afraid we are already very late,” says Apang who works at the Orchid Research centre in Tippi in West Kameng District. “At one point, it was very common to find orchids all over Arunachal Pradesh. Now they are rare and endangered because of human intervention in their habitat. Our first step would be to create awareness among the locals,” he says.
According to Gogoi, a lack of awareness among the locals is a major reason that leads to orchid depletion in Arunachal Pradesh.
“The biggest threat is due to ignorance. Common people have very little knowledge about the worth of the orchid,” says Gogoi, adding that the IUCN development is important because it will help determine the status of orchids already discovered, “For example, the recent ones we discovered in the Ziro Valley — we don’t know their status yet.”
In Arunachal Pradesh, the richest concentration of orchids is believed to be in Ziro Valley. An orchid translocation project since 2017 has led to the discovery of more than 20 species in the area.
The IUCN Red List is a crucial tool in understanding threats against biodiversity and helps initiating action for conservation. “Research on orchids have been done for long — the Orchid Research centre in Tippi is one of the pioneering institutions in orchid study and was established in 1972. But the IUCN Red Listing will go a long way in initiating a proper conservation plan,” says Apang.
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