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Noah's Ark for Endangered Plants

The Missouri Botanical Garden finds, shelters, and studies threatened tropical plant species

TUCKED inside a long, mirror-walled building on the lushly landscaped grounds of the Missouri Botanical Garden here is a garden most visitors never see - one that reaches to remote regions of the globe. This garden houses one of the world's largest research programs in tropical botany. Researchers in St. Louis and the Garden's field botanists in the rain forests of Africa and Latin America are hastening to discover, identify, catalog, and conserve plants faced with extinction. Scientists say many of these undiscovered plants have the potential to be of great benefit to humans.

``Our life depends on plants. We eat plants, we build with plants, but still we depend on a very small number of species for most of the things that we do. And we are certain that there are many others in the forest that are not known, not only for food but for medicine and all kinds of other things,'' says Enrique Forero, director of research at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

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About two-thirds of all Earth's plant and animal species live in the rich climate of the rain forests near the equator; many are undiscovered. But logging or slash-and-burn methods of clearing land for farming are eliminating vast tracts of forest each year. In 1989, 125,000 square miles, an area larger than Nevada, were eradicated, according to the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco environmental group.

``We may lose one-fourth of all the species [plants and animals] on earth in the next 30 years because of the way the forests are being destroyed,'' says Peter Raven, the Missouri Botanical Garden's director.

This kind of gloomy forecast lends urgency to the Garden's inventorying efforts.

Botanists here are involved primarily with systematic botany: collecting and classifying plants. Dr. Raven emphasizes that the Garden tries to stay in this niche because it is such a difficult job - especially in the tropics. Not only are there few people in the world who can go into a rain forest and know what they are looking at, but the physical conditions and unfamiliarity also make the work more challenging, he says.

Most of his team of 40 PhD scientists live in or make field trips to these dense and diverse areas. Although research projects span the globe and include work in nontropical regions, the majority are concentrated in about 15 tropical countries in Latin America and Africa - from Costa Rica to Cameroon.

Besides collecting rare and endangered plants, however, botanists are also trying to help conserve the rain forests that remain.

In Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa that boasts some of the most unusual and endangered flora of Earth's estimated 250,000 species of plants, 80 percent of the land has already been deforested. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), the Garden has set up a national reserve to help preserve land and is helping the community make the forests they have already cut more productive and sustainable.

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The field work undertaken deep in the faraway rain forests - as well as in other regions - is a basis for the Garden's research activities here. Each year, botanists and graduate students send tens of thousands of plants to St. Louis to be curated and stored in the Herbarium, a collection of dried plants. With 3.8 million specimens, some dating back to the 1700s, the Herbarium serves as a permanent treasury for scholars, taxonomists, and other scientists who study the properties and features of preserved plants for uses in food, energy, medicine, and other products. Many products used in everyday life - such as rubber, coffee, and bananas - come from the rain forests.

In addition, the Garden has become a leader in building a worldwide computerized database on plants. Raven says this new tool is elevating the way scientists deal with the biodiversity crisis because it organizes information and makes it accessible.

The public sees the visible effects of the tropical research programs in a display facility called the Climatron. In this miniature indoor rain forest, 1,400 species of tropical plants thrive in a natural setting. Graphics educate visitors about the different plants and the ecosystem of the fragile forests.

Another part of the Garden's goal in the tropics is what Raven calls ``institution building.''

``There is an absolute necessity for institutions like ours to bond, to form relationships with institutions in developing countries, because it's developing countries that can really make the kind of contribution you're talking about but only if they're adequately funded,'' he says.

The Garden itself has little money to finance its programs. Instead, it actively seeks funds from agencies like the National Science Foundation, AID, the National Geographic Society, and a number of private foundations.

A grant from one foundation, for example, is supporting cash-strapped botanical gardens in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia. The gardens in these countries are able to use this money to purchase computers, upgrade or build facilities, or hire and train more staff. ``Botanical gardens in temperate areas can only do so much. Our best strategy is to try and influence other organizations,'' curator Peter Hoch explains.

ALONG with building institutions, botanists here also stress the importance of training and educating Latin Americans whose skills are needed to help develop policies and scientific efforts in their own countries.

``You have to pull everybody together, and that's why we work very hard at collaborating with different institutions, developing joint research projects, teaching courses in graduate programs, or by bringing people here for either short-term or long-term training,'' Dr. Forero says.

Raven says one way to continue preserving what flora is left would be to have a worldwide series of botanical gardens and parks funded internationally at a level adequate to have trained people and equipment.

``The forests are basically slipping through our fingers right now, but we're trying to put as much steam, get as much money, generate as much interest as rapidly as we can along with a handful of other institutions,'' he says. ``In a very real sense we're operating a Noah's Ark at the present time - we're really selecting the organisms that will be around 100 years from now either passively or actively.''

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