Biologist on a mission to save earth's flora: Professor Li Chia-wei

Carolyn Khew, Straits Times AsiaOne 19 Dec 15;

If Noah - he of the Ark and the animals two by two - had a modern-day twin, it would be Professor Li Chia-wei.

The Taiwanese biologist, 62, is on a life's mission to collect as many living plant specimens as he possibly can so the earth may have a chance to recover the species it loses.

Prof Li, whose love for plants started at a young age, set up the Dr Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Centre in Pingtung County, southern Taiwan, in 2007.

There, he and his team of more than 20 collection managers and technicians scout for plants from all over the world - from as far as South America and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific - which they then propagate. Some are also cultivated into hybrids in greenhouses.

Today, the centre boasts the largest living collection of plants in the world, with more than 27,000 species of begonias, ferns and orchids, among others.

Not only does it provide a physical repository of plants, but its propagation efforts, if successful, could also help reintroduce plants back into the wild, he said.

"When you study fossils from the past (during the prehistoric era), less than one per million species would go extinct every year.

But today, 100 to 1,000 species per million species would go extinct annually," said Prof Li, whose background is in fossils and evolutionary biology.

"Conservation efforts should be taken at as large a scale as possible, as this ecosystem is unable to stay healthy at the rate it is going.

The disappearance of every species is like losing one part of the car running on the freeway.

You don't know exactly when the car will crash, so it's dangerous."

Previously museum director at the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan, he is also currently a Distinguished Professor at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at National Tsing Hua University.

Prof Li was recently here on a visit hosted by the National University of Singapore science faculty's School of Biological Sciences and delivered various lectures on topics such as conservation and human evolution.

Speaking to The Straits Times during his month-long stay here, Prof Li said while his centre initially focused on collecting critically endangered plants, he realised later they were not the only ones in peril.

"There were plants that were so popular at one point, but you later discover as soon as months later that they have been completely removed or had their habitats destroyed... So based on our encounter, we will grow any plant we can collect," said Prof Li.

He cited the example of a camellia species, Pyrenaria buisanensis, common in southern Taiwan when it was named in 1931 but which soon became difficult to find and considered extinct in the wild for nearly half a century until two individual plants were sighted again in 2004.

The seeds were then collected and propagated by the centre, which now has more than 100 individual plants that will in the future be reintroduced into the wild.

Another example was the begonia baik, a flowering plant discovered in Sarawak last year, whose only known habitat was destroyed by a road construction bulldozer in July this year.

Thankfully, the centre had conserved five individual plants.

The centre's collection outstrips even that of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in England, which has 18,000 taxa, or species and cultivars; and the Missouri Botanic Gardens, in the United States, which has 17,500 taxa.

While there are plans to house more than 30,000 species of plants by next year, Prof Li said that the work to save the planet cannot be accomplished alone.

To that end, he has collaborated with countries like the Solomon Islands, and will also be working with the Singapore Botanic Gardens on various aspects.

Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Gardens, said these would encompass collaboration and exchanges spanning biodiversity education, and research, among other areas.

A memorandum of understanding to set the scope of collaboration is currently being developed.

Said Dr Taylor: "Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Dr Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Centre share a common interest in the conservation of threatened plant species in Asia. By working together, botanic gardens throughout the world can achieve more than each can alone."

Prof Li grew up in Penghu, a remote island in Taiwan.

It was when he moved to Taichung, central Taiwan when he was 12 that he began to cultivate a love for horticulture.

His father had taken him to a flower market there, and he was struck by the beauty and diversity of plants.

As he grew, his love for plants blossomed in more ways than one.

In 1976, he met the love of his life, who happened to share the same name as his favourite flower.

He met Ms Hu Tiehlan while he was studying marine biology at the National Taiwan University, and she, botany. "My wife has the same Chinese name as the popular orchid, Phalaenopsis. That attracted my attention," said Prof Li.

And as they say, the rest is history.

He married her in 1980 and the couple have two sons who are both researchers in the field of biology.

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