Appraisal Phase of 'Flowers Fit For A Dalai Lama' Plant Conservation Project
It is abundantly clear, based both on my observations during the Assessment Stages of this project (2010-12) combined with experience gained during expeditions along the Himalaya since 1980, that a fresh and more thoughtful, long-term approach is required for all future plant conservation projects in the Himalaya and borderlands of Tibet. This principle applies to aid projects in general, not just those connected with plants or plant conservation.
Typically, there ends up being precious little or even nothing to show from the considerable effort expended and at times, not insignificant sums spent by individual Westerners, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) or government organisations and institutions. Most projects set-up to supposedly 'Save Rare and Endangered Medicinal Species' in the Himalaya have been poorly thought through and overly ambitious, expecting 'instant' results. Often, the species selected to 'Save', were neither rare nor endangered or in some cases even native to the region concerned! I have visited some projects a few years on and have found NO evidence of successful ex-situ conservation. Enthusiasm is not enough. Such naïve, even foolish projects, can end up doing more harm than good, contributing to disillusionment of locals genuinely wishing to contribute. As with so much, the days of the 'jolly' amateur approach must be over. I recollect an internet search on Ladakh plants quite some years ago, highlighted a 'Woman sleeping in caves to save rare and endangered plants'. What nonsense. I was even more taken aback when a top award and a significant sum were awarded to supposedly 'conserve' plants utilised in Tibetan Medicine. As one leading local doctor of Tibetan succinctly put it, "Bull Shit"!
Why should someone in the West, just because they have time available, automatically assume they can march in and 'Save' something. If the same happened in the UK or America, people would be up-in-arms. Similarly, much as it is local initiatives which should be supported, being a resident of a country does not guarantee credentials. Unfortunately, the world over, unscrupulous individuals will pick up on and trumpet their 'green', 'conservation' or 'charity' credentials, when in fact it is just a sham. One lady from the Indian sub-continent I have known for decades, used to describe these things as "ON PAPER ONLY". Bringing that up-to-date, one must warn, "ON WEB-SITE ONLY". We all need to be increasingly street-wise.
It is relatively simple and easy to 'appear' to be taking steps and measures to aid conservation, when in reality little is achieved. No matter how impressive it may sound in the report produced.......
The most urgent matter which needs addressing is for the NEED for trained field-botanists to spend more time in the Himalaya and borderlands of Tibet studying plants. This is the ONLY way to ensure records/information which can be relied upon. Unless there are skilled and dedicated botanists from Himalayan countries (with International collaboration) undertaking regular surveys in remote, higher-elevation districts, who can reliably identify the plants they see, supported by herbaria at regional universities which contain extensive reference collections of high-quality pressed specimens, it is impossible to judge which species are rare, let alone endangered... Without such quality surveys, all that follows is flawed. In Science one has always needed to get the BASICS right. I remember in the early days of computer applications for analysing data, talk of, "RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT", no matter how advanced/ sophisticated the computer software applied. In these days of high-tech Science getting the basics right can easily be forgotten - even if those basic are so PRIMITIVE.
Being very much a scientist at heart, I am frequently disturbed by individuals in senior positions not understanding the necessity for CONTROLS in experiments and then drawing conclusions they were NOT entitled to, from the results. I studied GCSE level Statistics in the mid-1970s. Forty years on, it continues to serve me well. "There are LIES, damn LIES and then there are STATISTICS". Well, it is not the statistics that are at fault but those using them incorrectly. I also remember during an introductory computer course at University, the lecturer stating that if you are ever told, "The COMPUTER" made an error, almost certainly it was not a computer error but the mistake of the computer operator.....
I have recently been bold (perhaps it now seems, very unwise) enough to publicly announce that NONE of the species from the Himalaya listed under Appendix II of CITIES, is rare.... And when papers are published in journals of what I take to be competent analyses of the bio-chemical constituents of Himalayan species in modern laboratories, their value is destroyed if the plant has been misidentified - in fact such cases undermine the whole system of publication of said research internationally. Other scientists will have full confidence in the identifications but this may be misplaced. Though such scientists are partly responsible, as they go along with the transformation to high-tech science allied with a dismissal of 'old-fashioned' field studies and 'Victorian' herbaria. Surely, such antiquated activities are no longer required.... THEY are mistaken and science is starting to pay a heavy price.
Furthermore, educated scientists trained in a variety of complimentary disciplines involved in conservation projects, need to appreciate the necessity of spending time with and learning from local villagers, valuing their traditional knowledge. And those providing funding for research and other projects must understand all this!
Chris in conversation with a Ladakhi Lama (Buddhist monk) interested in plants utilised in Tibetan Medicine; after attending the talk (with accompanying slides) Chris gave prior to presenting Amchi Tsewang Smanla with a Kohli Memorial Gold Medal (for his contribution to the study of Tibetan Borderland plants), commented that he would welcome the opportunity to explore in the mountains with me during my next visit to Ladakh - I had "opened his eyes" to aspects of plant life he had not noticed before.
What sounds impressive "on paper" within a subsequent report or claimed on a web-site, may well not actually be for real........ It is the duty of all concerned to improve what is currently an unsatisfactory situation. In these days of financial austerity and limited budgets in Western countries, it makes sense that what support is available, should be directed towards sound, worthwhile project with realistic, achievable aims.
ONLY by spending time in the mountains that scientists become familiar with the relative abundance and rarity of Himalayan species; here is Chris Chadwell discussing the finer points of plant identification with an amchi (doctor of traditional Tibetan medicine).
Those studying Himalayan flora NEED to get out trekking and scrambling amongst the rocks more - getting the driver of the vehicle to go and do the collecting, whilst the botanist sits in comfort is NOT good enough, even if the altitude makes them short of breath; otherwise it is not the flora as a whole they are familiar with, just the road-side species, many of which are cosmopolitan weeds!
A-Z of Flowers from the Western Himalaya Project
In 2014 I began this PHOTOGRAPHIC REFERENCE resource for FLOWERS OF THE WESTERN HIMALAYAThere is certainly a great need, as misidentification of Himalayan plants is common-place, creating long-term problems. Even the best guides using photos have strict limitations. Due to issues of space within and cost of, traditional publications, usually only a single image is presented for each species. Even if this is close-up and of the highest quality, one can seldom RELIABLY identify a plant by 'matching' with such illustrations - though plenty of people seem to be convinced THEY (with no training or background in plant identification, taxonomy or nomenclature) can....
Chris Chadwell enjoying himself amongst Delphiniums at 5000m+ in Ladakh - it is great to have the opportunity to explore in the high mountains and return with good quality digital images
MUCH more reliable identifications can be arrived at by having several images available to consult, showing details of flowers (all parts), fruit, foliage, habit and habitat - along with details of frequency of occurrence. I regularly try to explain that traditional plant identification is based upon characteristics which can be observed, in a herbarium, from dried, pressed specimens. The actual identification often being performed by a specialist in the family or genus to which the species belongs (when done by such a person, if is called a DETERMINATION). On the card onto which specimens are mounted in herbaria, in addition to any name typed onto the label, may be a number of Determination (Det) slips, where an authority visiting the herbarium has given their opinion as to the identification (which may or may not be in agreement with the name on the original label). These slips are signed and dated. By having a number of specimens to consult, I always had greater confidence in the identifications I arrived at. But almost always felt that the level of knowledge of the flora of the Himalaya was poor. So many genera needed to be collected more and studied further.
Pressed specimen of MECONOPSIS ACULEATA collected for Urusvati Institute (University of Michigan Herbarium)
Whilst not having the resources of a full herbarium, my approach is nevertheless along similar lines to that of the outstanding FLORA OF MICHIGAN PROJECT in the US (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) under the direction of Professor Reznicek ( http://michiganflora.net/photos.aspx). It is there goal eventually to have images of all species, and ideally images representing various stages and structures of the plants. This is a long range goal, of course - as are so many of my objectives...
Professor Anton Reznicek consulting specimens in the University of Michigan Herbarium
One of the problems in herbaria is that often the specimens available are of poor quality, with few if any accompanying field notes. This certainly applies to the flora of the Himalaya. Many specimens were collected in the 19th Century, often not by trained botanists - who had little idea of what they were doing. Though given the distances the bundles of specimens travelled, often under adverse conditions, one has to be grateful that they made it at all. Having said that the early specimens are frequently scrappy, having been poorly pressed or dried. The situation was compounded by insufficient material being gathered (for small, alpine plants, several specimens per sheet should be collected), so when it came to send duplicate material to other herbaria, what little that was available, had to be sub-divided further. The main centre for specimens of Himalayan flora in the 19th and early 20th Century was the East India Company's Botanic Garden at Calcutta (NOT Kew, as some might have imagined). Indeed, B.O.Coventry, Conservator of Forests for Kashmir and author of 'Wild Flowers of Kashmir' would send any pressed specimens he took, for naming first at Calcutta. Kew would be consulted but as, like everything else, specimens would have to be sent by sea (a journey of several weeks).
Filing cabinets full of pressed specimens in the University of Michigan Herbarium
By far the best set of specimens covering the Western Himalaya and borderlands of Western Tibet, were those gathered by Dr Walter Koelz, his main collecting partner, the Thakur Rup Chand (of the local ruling family) and their collecting assistants. A full set of these is preserved in the University of Michigan herbarium at Ann Arbor (also under the direction of Professor Reznicek - see above). The tends of thousands of specimens, mostly collected in the 1930s, had been languishing, untouched for decades, when Dr Ralph Stewart, upon retirement from his position as Principal of the Gordon College, Rawalpindi, came as a Research Associate. With Rup Chand's help (who by then had settled in Ann Arbor) he named, had mounted and labelled, the fine specimens. This set of specimen is far superior to anything for the Western Himalaya housed at Kew, the Natural History Museum or Edinburgh (the UK's leading herbaria) or any other institution in the world. What a pity, that the set deposited at the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute in the Kulu Valley, Western Himalaya (or what may remain of it) languishes un-touched 80 years on....