When only one tree is left

In the span of 380 years of human colonisation, which amount to less than  0.005 % of its age geologically, the island of Mauritius went from being completely covered with forests to now having only about 5 % of the original forest remaining. Concurrently, the island lost hundreds of species including the famous dodo.

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Engraving showing Dutch activities on the shore of Mauritius in 1598  when it was still in pristine state| John Theodore and John Isreal De Bry| Wikimedia Commons

Letter I would like to think that I am not the only one who sometimes have an active imagination when standing on Mauritian soil and try to picture how things once were and looked. I live in the region where the first settlers landed, in the south-east coast. So many times, I wish I could go back in time to see the lush vegetation including the palm-rich woodlands. In present time, the band of palm-rich forest that occurred in dry lowland areas is gone except for a surviving community on Round Island, a strict nature reserve and islet found in the north.

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Round island, the last refuge for native palm forest  in Mauritius © F.Monty

The view i now have instead is that of cleared areas, mixed with concrete, populated by introduced species including Homo sapiens (people) and along the coast, some pine and coconut trees add some greenery. Isn’t it a sad thing, that the one palm tree that Mauritians are the most familiar with i.e. coconut, is not even Mauritian in origin? Particularly in a region with such a unique native palm flora. Indeed, the Mascarene Archipelago composed of Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues have 11 species of palm found only in the region and they are all threatened with extinction.  Seven of these species are found in Mauritius but their future remain uncertain, particularly that of Hyophorbe amaricaulis, also known as the loneliest palm.

 

The world’s rarest plant

With one last individual surviving, H. amaricaulis can go extinct anytime, for example due to a disease or a cyclone. And in contrast to some other species that have gone extinct in the wild, we currently cannot count on remaining specimens of this palm in botanical gardens to keep the species alive. It can easily claim the title of the world’s rarest plant but yet receives little attention relative to its importance.

Due to its biology, the last tree cannot reproduce on its own. Propagation attempts so far have proved to be difficult and long-term survival of plantlets produced is a challenge.

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Last individual of H.amaricaulis in Curepipe Botanical garden © C. Baider

However there is no doubt that an up-scaling in efforts and continued attempts is necessary to improve the success rate. And as highlighted by a paper published in 2015, one important step in this direction is to resume and maintain collaborations with international institutions that have a greater capacity to propagate rare plants.

However i also think that an international approach will remain limited and waste precious time if all hands are not on deck. Given the precarious situation for this species, any new project should recognise and involve all relevant institutions (local and international) that have something important to contribute based on previous and/or on-going work. There should be no space for institutional competition and other politics to come in the way.

 

Sources:

1. Florens, F.B.V. (2015). International action required to rescue world’s rarest plant. Nature Plants, 1(10), 15152.

2. Magdalena, C. (2018). The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species. Penguin Books Ltd, UK.

3. Maunder, M., Page, W., Mauremootoo, J., Payendee, R., Mungroo, Y., Maljkovic, A., Vericel, C. & Lyte, B. (2002). The decline and conservation management of the threatened endemic palms of the Mascarene Islands. Oryx, 36(1), 56-65.

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