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Never-Before-Seen Orchid Recovered From Minefield, Cardamom Mountains

Feb 05, 2015 04:51 PM EST
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(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Dalton Holland Baptista) Eria lasiopetala - one of many rare orchid species identified in Cambodia.

What would you risk your life for? Wealth, knowledge, power, love - all these things are common answers. But how about a single rare flower - one surrounded by hidden landmines in a secluded part of the world?

That's exactly what a team of botanists from London's Kew Royal Botanic Gardens did back in 2013, when they collected about 200 rare plants in a risky expedition into the Cardamom Mountains - a region that once played host to the last Khmer Rouge rebel stronghold in Cambodia.

Littered with pitfalls and anti-personnel landmines, this isolated and booby-trapped part of the world remained off limits for far longer than the rest of Cambodia, which finally escaped a war-torn past in the mid-1990s.

What followed was a period of recovery, during which villagers laid down thier weapons to once again pick up the plow. To survive, they cleared once beautiful forests and hunted rare wildlife, but eventually, things improved. Landmines were cleared in safe paths, and within the last decade or so locals around the mountains have managed to carve out a living doing something they never expected: serving as guides through the incredibly primal jungle landscape that they call home.

According to The Washington Post, the remote region saw only about 1,000 or so tourists back in 2012, most of whom were hikers looking to trek into a wilderness seemingly untouched by the commercialized world.

When the Post's Nick Bolos visited there in 2012, one young girl even burst into tears at the sight of him, because, as a guide told him, she simply "hasn't seen many westerners."

However, scientists are also slowly trickling into the region too, with Kew's André Schuiteman and his colleagues quickly finding themselves a guide at their arrival in 2013.

"You daren't go there alone," he explained to The Independent. "We had to have armed guards because there are drug gangs operating there. There are also illegal loggers in the region and if you stumble across them they can be aggressive." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Paul Mason USAID/Cambodia/OGD) Illegal logging photographed from above the Cardamom Mountains.

However, Schuiteman went on to explain that it was worth the risk. This year about half the plants collected - including 20 species never before seen in Cambodia - have come into flower.

One was even officially identified as a new species of wild orchid - an exciting revelation after a two-year waiting game. This species has yet to be named, but boast a deep maroon color that slightly glistens under the Sun.

Christopher Ryan, the Kew Nursery and Orchid Collection Manager, added that the botanists are likely in for even more surprises, as they continue to wait for the rest of the samples to flower.

"We expect that more of our plants will turn out to be new country records for Cambodia and we would not be surprised if one or two were altogether new to science," he excitedly announced in a recent blog post. "Continued collaboration and more fieldwork in other parts of Cambodia is needed before we can produce a reasonably complete inventory of the orchid flora of this intriguing country."

Unfortunately, most of these Cambodian species are still being held in quarantine at Kew, for fear that they could contaminate or even unintentionally crossbreed with the garden's other stunning orchid collections.

"Still, many other similar southeast Asian species can be seen in the orchid displays in the Princess of Wales Conservatory as part of Kew's Orchids festival," Ryan said.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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