New Orchid species discovered in rain forest


Oct 15, 2006

With their spectacular colours, delicate petals and extraordinary shapes, orchids have long been the most prized of flowers. In times gone by people even died in pursuit of these rare, exotic blooms.

Now conservationists have made a discovery that would make any orchid hunter weep with joy - up to 28 new species of the flower. Eight of them are already confirmed as brand new plants that have never been seen before.

Among them is a stunning orchid with a delicate star-shaped flower and another that has bright white petals dabbed with vivid fuschia. The team have also recently found another 20 orchids in the same area and are now busy trying to verify whether these too are newly-discovered species.

Conservationists say the discovery of so many new orchids in the unexplored rainforests of Papua New Guinea is incredibly exciting - especially as around 70 species have recently been wiped out in neighbouring Indonesia.

They are now appealing for renewed efforts to protect the Kikori region where the orchids were found to ensure these flowers and other unique species are not destroyed.

The flowers mark the culmination of a long-term study by the WWF charity going back as far as 1998 of tropical rainforest in the country. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the tropical island of New Guinea - the other half belonging to Indonesia - which lies to the north of Australia.

Some 85 per cent of the country is covered in tropical rainforest home to a combination of Asian and Australian species including birds of paradise and the extraordinary tree kangaroo. Papua New Guinea is also known to have more recorded species of orchid than any other country in the world.

Wayne Harris, a botanist from Queensland Herbarium and one of the leading experts on orchids said: 'The island of New Guinea is an incredible goldmine of orchids.

'There are over 3,000 known species found here with countless varieties yet to be discovered.'

Olo Gebia a WWF forest ecologist said the finding of the new species was very good news. 'The discovery of such as large number of new species is incredibly exciting,' he said.

He said around 70 species that used to exist in the neighbouring forests of Indonesia have died out because of illegal logging. 'The sad reality is that many of these plants including those which may contain cures to some of the world's most deadly diseases may become extinct before they have even been discovered - this gives even greater urgency to ensuring the long-term conservation of the remarkable Kikori region.'

The WWF is working to help conserve the Kikori region which is home to 20,000 people who rely on the bounties of its forests and streams for their livelihood and food.

Two new Wildlife Management Areas, protecting significant areas of rainforest, are due to be announced in a week's time to help extend the amount of protected land in the country.

Orchids, because of the shape of their petals and tubers, have been connected with sex for 2,000 years and have been used as an aphrodisiac.

In the past their beauty and rarity has prompted hunters to scour the globe for them even risking their lives in the process.

More than one collector has fallen to his death trying to dislodge those growing trees and some have even ventured into landmine-scattered areas of Vietnam to collect rare orchids.

In his 1939 book, Orchid Hunters, Norman Macdonald wrote: 'When a man falls in love with orchids, he'll do anything to possess the one he wants.

'It's like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine...It's a sort of madness.'