UK botanists to make inventory of flora in Nepal

London, November 22:

Mark Watson is in Kathmandu, negotiating an unusual project: to carry live plants and seeds out of Nepal and back to the UK.

In an effort to conserve the country’s abundant flora, Watson and his colleagues are about to start collecting and documenting every one of Nepal’s 6,000-7,000 species of plant.

Watson, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, and his colleague Colin Pendry have spent much of the last two years training 16 local botanists in Nepal.

This week they will be putting the trainees through their final paces, testing them on everything from herbarium management to plant drying, before starting the project in earnest.

They are expecting the mammoth undertaking to take them 15 years, but when it is finished the new plantlife record, or flora, will be the first official record of Nepal’s rich plant environment and an invaluable aid for conservationists working out how best to protect and maintain the mountain nation’s unique variety of plants.

Although it takes up only 0.09 per cent of the planet’s land surface, Nepal squeezes in everything from steamy jungles to frozen Himalayan mountains.

This huge variation in altitude and environment makes it one of the most plant-rich countries in the world. By comparison the UK has 2,000 species recorded in its own flora. They will set about collecting the thousands of different plants in the same way the Victorians did - by going out and hunting for them.

Part of the training has involved three expeditions, with the most recent, in September, going to the Sagarmatha National Park in the Mount Everest region.

On these expeditions each botanist specialises in a particular plant group and gathers specimens.

“We use GPS to work out the exact location and altitude of each specimen, digital cameras to take photos and a laptop to make ecological notes about each plant,” says Watson. Back at the camp the plants are pressed and dried using heat dryers.

As well as an adventurous spirit, some plant collecting also requires steady nerves and a head for heights. “There are some species that only grow along the branches of tall trees and others that prefer rocky cliff faces,” says Watson.

The terrain is not the only difficulty for plant collectors in Nepal. “Certain areas are problematic for collecting because of the Maoist insurgents,” he adds.

So far the Edinburgh collectors have documented around 600 plant species on the expeditions, enough to fill one of the 10 volumes they expect to produce.