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The corpse flower, smelliest flower on Earth, is at grave risk of extinction

The Rafflesia, colloquially known as the “corpse flower” for its pungent aroma, is the world’s largest and smelliest flower — and it is in imminent danger of extinction.

A recent paper published in the journal Plants, People, Planet has sounded the alarm, revealing that current conservation efforts are far from sufficient to protect these unique botanical wonders.

Key findings of the Rafflesia study

The study constitutes the first comprehensive evaluation of the threats facing Rafflesia species globally. Researchers found that out of the 42 known species, 25 are categorized as critically endangered, 15 as endangered, and two as vulnerable.

Strikingly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recognized only one species, Rafflesia magnifica, as critically endangered.

One of the most startling revelations of the study was that “60% of Rafflesia species face a severe risk of extinction and at least 67% of known habitats fall outside protected areas, exacerbating their vulnerability,” according to the report.

A neglected plant kingdom

Dr. Chris Thorogood, from the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and a co-author of the study, emphasized the disparity in conservation efforts between plant and animal species.

Thorogood stated, “We urgently need a joined-up, cross-regional approach to save some of the world’s most remarkable flowers, most of which are now on the brink of being lost.”

The ephemeral nature of Rafflesia

Adding to the sense of urgency is the elusive life cycle of corpse flower plants. Many Rafflesia species remain mostly hidden, subsisting within jungle vines that they parasitize for nutrients.

Their populations are often critically small, with some estimated to consist of only a few hundred members. Alarmingly, researchers warn that “taxa are still being eradicated before they are even known to science.”

Local communities and ecotourism

The paper also highlights the potential for local communities, particularly indigenous peoples, to play an instrumental role in conservation efforts.

Adriane Tobias, a Filipino forester and co-author of the study, stressed that, “Rafflesia conservation programs are far more likely to be successful if they engage local communities. Rafflesia has the potential to be a new icon for conservation in the Asian tropics.”

The study suggests that ecotourism could serve as an added incentive for local communities to engage in conservation work. This creates a win-win situation for both the flower and the people living in proximity to its natural habitats.

Call for immediate action

The researchers urged immediate steps to improve the understanding of existing species, enhance protection of their natural habitats, and develop new techniques for their propagation. The paper calls for a unified, global effort to save this awe-inspiring yet highly vulnerable genus from the brink of extinction.

In summary, the study paints a grim picture for the Rafflesia. Its endangered status can only be changed through swift, coordinated, and comprehensive conservation actions. The world stands to lose not just a biological marvel, but also a potential symbol of ecological preservation if efforts are not escalated immediately.

More about Rafflesia

Rafflesia, often dubbed the “corpse flower”, captures the attention of botanists and enthusiasts alike. This plant is not just impressive for its size, but also for its peculiar characteristics. Found primarily in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, this unique flower showcases nature’s eccentricities in full bloom.

At first glance, Rafflesia’s sheer size astounds most observers. Some species, like the Rafflesia arnoldii, boast flowers that can reach up to a meter in diameter. But what truly sets it apart is its lifestyle. Lacking conventional plant structures such as leaves, stems, and roots, Rafflesia leads a parasitic life. Instead of synthesizing its own food through photosynthesis, it draws nutrients from the Tetrastigma vines.

Yet, it’s the flower’s peculiar odor that has earned it the nickname “corpse flower”. Emitting a strong scent reminiscent of decaying flesh, Rafflesia attracts carrion flies for pollination. These insects, lured by the smell, enter the flower in search of a meal, inadvertently aiding in the plant’s reproduction.

However, as mentioned above, Rafflesia now faces significant challenges. Deforestation and habitat destruction threaten its existence. Recent studies have shown that many species remain unprotected and at risk of extinction. Local communities, recognizing the flower’s potential as an ecotourism draw, play an essential role in its conservation.

Rafflesia stands as a testament to nature’s ability to surprise and fascinate. As efforts to conserve this botanical marvel intensify, it serves as a vivid reminder of the wonders the natural world holds and our responsibility to protect them.

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