A decade-long botanical study, carried out by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and assisted by more than three hundred Earthwatch volunteers in the highland forests of western Cameroon, has remarkably discovered fifty endemic plant and fungi species and varieties new to science, it was announced today.
The new species vary from tiny annual mountain pipeworts the size of a thumbnail, to huge rainforest canopy trees. Three new species of Coffee, one ebony and one Busy Lizzy are amongst the species that might have economic importance in future.
Since 1993, botanists*, led by Dr Martin Cheek of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, have been working with Earthwatch volunteers and local plant experts (supported by a Darwin Initiative grant) exploring the remote and poorly known highland forests of western Cameroon. They have been documenting the rare and endemic plants that remain in these dwindling forest habitats, carrying out botanical inventories to provide vital data for conservation management and to identify and improve the survival rates of the numerous unique and sometimes bizarre plant species of the area. To date, these teams have uncovered nearly 50% of the specimens catalogued from western Cameroon.
Dr Martin Cheek, lead scientist of Earthwatch's Cameroon Rainforests project and former Senior Technical Adviser to the National Herbarium of Cameroon, said, ‘Of course it is incredibly exciting to be able to publish such a wealth of data on plants and fungi new to science. Earthwatch volunteers have made it possible, providing the hands and eyes necessary to gather the vast amounts of material we need to help local conservation managers to prioritise which species most need protection. But many more species are still undescribed in the highlands of western Cameroon and given the current pace of habitat degradation, they may face extinction before we have even found them.'
Matthew Frith, an Earthwatch volunteer, commented, ‘My trip to the rainforest of western Cameroon offered a real contrast to my experience of working in London's woodlands, not least in the size of the trees and the sounds of the birds. Moreover, the chance to contribute to a greater understanding of the conservation value of these forests around Bakossi, and how this may, in turn, support efforts for local people to sustainably manage their local environment was highly inspirational.'
He added, ‘As a child I had a strong zoological curiosity and I had always dreamt of discovering a new animal; I never imagined of ever having a plant named after me, but the day I encountered a scarlet-flowered Impatiens on a saunter up a forest stream is one I shall never forget. It has been a wonderful and thrilling experience, not only for me but also for my parents who first showed me the beauty and complexities of nature. My thanks to Earthwatch and RBG Kew for enabling this to happen and to Dr Martin Cheek for naming the plant after its urban discoverer'.
Roger Mitchell, Head of Research and Education at Earthwatch, said, ‘The ultimate test of a conservation project is the application of the results to ensure the action necessary to sustain biodiversity. This project clearly passes that test as the information generated informs the National Strategy on Biodiversity including decisions on which areas to protect at national level, feeds into conservation awareness at the community level, helps release further funds to boost the work. In addition, local staff are being trained in plant conservation during the fieldwork. Altogether an outstanding research project!'
Members of the public can take part in the Cameroon Rainforests project themselves next year - Earthwatch teams will be working in the field in 2005.
Telephone +44 (0)1865 318 831 for details.
* Ben Pollard, Tivvy Harvey, Iain Darbyshire, George Gosline are co-PIs that helped collect
the specimens and describe the new taxa.
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