With over 20% of plant species considered at risk of extinction, and many tens of thousands still awaiting discovery, three world-leading research institutes in Scotland and China have signed landmark agreements to address the challenges of understanding and conserving plant diversity.
Species repatriation, shared research into plant pathogens and extensive skills transfer are on the agenda after the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) established Collaboration Agreements with Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) and Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
Experience of working in China for more than a century, has allowed RBGE to collect the largest Living Collection of Chinese plants in cultivation outside their native country. Along with XTBG and KIB, it is recognised as a leading centre of expertise in plant science and conservation. The two new agreements are regarded as the logical next steps in the race to understand and conserve China’s globally-important flora, of some 30,000 species, and lay the foundation for new work on the vast but poorly understood plant diversity of the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
The commitments were made during an intensive 14-day visit to China by RBGE Regius Keeper Professor Simon Milne MBE with director of Science Professor Pete Hollingsworth and Horticulturists Martyn Dickson and David Tricker. As well as developing the Scotland-China partnerships and planning future collaborations, the team and their Chinese hosts undertook fieldwork in various parts of Yunnan. This included such climatic extremes as the tropical region close to the China/Laos/Myanmar border region and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan).
“These agreements on new collaborations are ambitious and broad-ranging,” explained Professor Milne. “While designed to further scientific research and best practice in horticulture and to enhance plant conservation, the strategy also has an emphasis on education and public engagement and development of botanic gardens.
“The move means closer cooperation with China on species re-introductions, conservation horticulture and taxonomic research and has the potential to open up even more partnerships in the wider region. By sharing information on the strategic responses to biodiversity loss and exploring opportunities for expanding ex-situ collections, there is huge potential to make a real difference.”
Joint expeditions and education programmes will be undertaken. A Conservation Genetics workshop is planned to provide a conceptual framework for pragmatic integration of genetic thinking into conservation planning and there is scope for funding joint supervision of PhD students. There will also be opportunities to share experiences on botanic garden management and profile-raising.
The agreements, co-signed by Professor Chen Jin, director of XTBG, and Professor Sun Hang, director of KIB extend an already active programme of partnership. A key feature of this has been management of the Jade Dragon Field Station, designated the UK’s first joint scientific laboratory in China in 2005, and Lijiang Alpine Garden on the Yulong Xue Shan.
KIB and RBGE have also played a lead role in coordinating global efforts in plant DNA barcoding, including techniques to understand which bamboo species are eaten by Giant Panda, to enhance design of habitat restoration programmes. Other initiatives have involved evaluating biodiversity risks from rubber plantations, and identifying environments which are sub-optimal for sustainable rubber production. Forthcoming projects will review the masterplan for Lijiang Alpine Garden and the field station and also explore opportunities for developing a Species Recovery Programme as a focus for linking horticulture to conservation and science at the site.
The developments have been welcomed in Scotland by Chinese Consul General Pan Xinchun, who concluded: “These agreements serve as another testimony to the already existing close co-operation between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Chinese counterparts and will inject fresh impetus into joint efforts in species conservation and research. I am confident that both sides will work together to bring these new agreements to fruition in contribution to the biotic protection of the mother earth.”