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Amazon explorer Sir Ghillean Prance on why we need to protect the rainforests

PUBLISHED: 10:27 10 February 2014 | UPDATED: 10:27 10 February 2014

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance

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Professor Philip Howse meets renowned botanist and Amazon explorer Professor Sir Ghillean Prance in his favourite tropical garden in Dorset to talk Brazil nuts, giant water lilies and why we need to protect our rainforests

Iain holding a specimen of Barringtonia (Brazil nut family) at National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai one of the Hawaiian islandsIain holding a specimen of Barringtonia (Brazil nut family) at National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai one of the Hawaiian islands

Steve Griffith, the Curator of the world-renowned Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, is puzzling over a South American passion vine he has just acquired. Passion vines bring to my mind the delicate passion vine butterflies that colour large areas of Brazil; they also cue thoughts of Victorian naturalists that explored the Amazon. The most famous is Alfred Russel Wallace the co-discoverer, with Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection. One of my heroes, he is buried in Broadstone. He is also a hero of the man standing next to me, who, with his thick grey hair, beard and glasses could almost be Wallace’s reincarnation.

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance FRS, VMH, or Iain, as he likes to be called, is the former Director of Kew Gardens, and knows more about plants of South America than anyone alive today and quickly identifies the vine. His knowledge rests on a 30-year period of exploration of the Amazon, including being stranded there after a plane crash and walking for days through uncharted forest while suffering from malarial fever to rescue his expedition members; he has also lived with 16 different Indian tribes.

Sir David Attenborough wrote of him: “To be the head of a modern scientific institution with a worldwide reputation and to combine that work with adventures that can compare with the most daring exploits of nineteenth-century explorers might seem impossible. But that is what Ghillean Prance has achieved and it is a thrilling mixture.”

Like Wallace, who retired to Dorset over 120 years earlier, Iain now lives on the Dorset coast, midway between the Eden Project, to which he is Scientific Adviser, and the London airports from which he departs frequently at the behest of foreign governments and conservation organisations. I met him a few hours after his return from Belém at the mouth of the Amazon.

Philip Howse, Steven Griffiths (Curator, Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens and Iain admire some of the exotic plants that thrive in Dorset's climatePhilip Howse, Steven Griffiths (Curator, Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens and Iain admire some of the exotic plants that thrive in Dorset's climate

“Twenty years ago I helped persuade the ODA (the UK Overseas Development Administration) to fund the establishment of a field station there under the auspices of the local Museum,” he explains as we wander through the lush gardens of Abbotsbury on a warm autumn afternoon. “They invited me back to celebrate the founding.”

Iain, who tells me that Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens is one of his favourite places to visit in Dorset, periodically leaps into the shrubbery with a gleam in his eye and grabs hold of a plant, introducing it enthusiastically as if it were an old friend.

“Look at this Philip. It’s a species of Echium from the Canary Islands. I grow this in my garden in Lyme Regis. I often come to Abbotsbury to get ideas for which plant species might grow well in my own garden.”

In Clive Langmead’s 1995 biography of Iain - A Passion for Plants: the life and vision of Ghillean Prance – he not only describes Iain’s dedication to botany but also the unstinting support that his wife, Anne, gave to her husband during his career. It was a career that began with a job in New York Botanical Gardens and was followed by a move to Manaus a city in the heart of the 2.5 million square mile Amazon Basin. Anne arrived with their two babies to a flat infested with cockroaches, with no safe water supply and an intermittent electricity supply. Her fortitude made it possible for Iain to mount plant-collecting expeditions, often lasting several months, to regions of the Amazon and Rio Negro that were at that time terra incognita for scientists.

Although Iain has collected thousands of plant specimens, hundreds of them new to science and some named after him, taxonomy is not an end in itself. It also provides an essential basis for the study of the interdependency of living organisms in particular habitats - ecology in short - and that in its turn is the only key to successful conservation.

As a scientist with deep spiritual beliefs Iain espouses the biblical teachings that man has a covenant with nature, which if broken can lead to disaster for us all. Until recently, he was Chairman of the Christian charity A Rocha (The Rock), founded in Portugal, which fosters projects concerned with the protection of the earth and its resources. His recent book Go to the Ant, the text stemming from biblical quotations, is intended to move Christians to wonder at some of the marvels of nature, and to treat God’s creation with more reverence and respect.

“A turning point in my life came when I began to encounter the widespread wanton destruction of the Amazon forest,” says Iain. “I started to direct my efforts into finding ways of stopping that destruction and learning from the indigenous Indian tribes about the forest resources and how they could be sustainably managed.”

Ian’s research took on a new urgency as he sought ways of demonstrating to the world the delicate but crucial interdependence of tropical plants and animals. On one field visit with students from the National Institute for Amazonian research, their lively curiosity caused him to focus his attention on the giant water lily, Victoria amazonica. This extraordinary plant has leaves over four feet in diameter that will bear the weight of a small child and it is dependent upon certain species of beetle for its existence as Iain subsequently discovered.

After spending many night hours up to his neck in the Amazonian backwaters, Iain found that the flower buds come above water and open their white petals precisely at dusk. Shining in the moonlight like stars fallen on the water, they releasing a powerful scent that attracts certain species of scarab beetle. “The flowers have starchy protrusions that keep the beetles feeding happily until the flower closes at dawn, losing its scent, changing its colour to red, and trapping the beetles at the end of their dinner party,” he explains. “At dusk the following day the flower opens again releasing the beetles along a narrow channel lined with pollen, which they then carry to a newly opened white flower. Hence, no beetles of the genus Cyclocephala, no giant water lilies.”

The water lily story clearly illustrates the fragility of the Amazonian ecosystems. Amazonia has very thin soils, poor in nutrients, and huge areas are flooded for months during the year, but the flora, including the forest trees is very diverse. When you find one species of tree you may not find another the same for hundreds of metres - which raises the question of how they propagate. With this conundrum in mind Iain directed his attention to the Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa, revealing an amazing nexus of interactions with other organisms, and changing the way in which we view the exploitation of tropical forest.

The Brazil nut trees tower above the rain forest canopy, reaching a height of 50 metres (160 feet) and the trunks are several metres wide at the base. The Brazil nuts, which are the seeds, are encased in a tough spherical shell; when it falls it could inflict severe injury on anyone beneath. Curiously, Brazil nut trees grown in isolation away from their forest habitat produce no fruit and Iain discovered why.

“Only the females of certain species of large orchid bee are capable of opening the large hood of the Brazil nut flower. The male bee, which is much smaller, needs to visit a particular species of orchid to steal an aphrodisiacal scent to entice the female to mate, and that orchid grows on nearby forest trees. Without the orchid or the bee there would be no nuts.

“When the hard shell with its content of nuts falls to the ground, there is only one animal that can open it - the agouti which does it by inserting its teeth in a small hole. This rodent, resembling an overgrown guinea-pig, buries the nuts some distance away as a food larder. Of course its memory sometimes fails and then the seeds germinate, usually far from the parent tree.”

As you enjoy your chocolate-coated Brazils over the festive period, spare a thought for the tree, the orchid, the bee, the agouti, and the castanheiros (nut-gatherers) among the indigenous Amazonian peoples. Iain’s fascinating discovery has been used to explain to politicians and policy makers that the wholesale destruction of tropical forest and its replacement with plantations in monoculture will ultimately destroy the local economy of the indigenous peoples. Knowledge of this kind has the potential for stopping plans for ill-considered agricultural exploitation dead in its tracks.

As we neared the end of our tour of Abbotsbury I asked Iain what motivated him to devote his life to exploring tropical forests. Why face all those enormous hazards and hardships, when he could have led a cosier life in academia. Anne, who probably knows him best, answered for him: “It’s not a question of motivation. That’s who he is.”

***

About Professor Sir Ghillean Prance

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance is one of the world’s greatest botanists and is Scientific Director and a Trustee of the Eden Project in Cornwall. He was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (1988 -1999), and was McBryde Professor at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii (2001 -2002). Ghillean Prance’s exploration of Amazonia included 15 expeditions in which he collected over 350 new species of plants. Several species from the Amazon are named prancei in his honour. He is the author of 21 books, holds 15 honorary doctorates and in 1993 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was knighted in 1995 and received the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1999.

In 2000 he was made a Commander of the Order of the Southern Cross by the President of Brazil, and in 2012 he received the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan. He continues to be active in research and the conservation of the tropical rainforest. He is a board member of the Amazon Charitable Trust, the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust and the Exbury Gardens Trust. He is President of the Wildflower Society, Nature in Art and the International Tree Foundation.

***

My Desert Island Discs

Iain was interviewed by Sue Lawley in 1992 on the BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs where his book choice was The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, his luxury item was his Celtic accordion and his favourite record was Amazing Grace performed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. You can listen to the programme again by visiting bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs and click on Castaway Archive.

***

Visit Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens

Open every day except 21st Dec - 1st Jan inclusive, 10am to 5pm (4pm in winter). Last admission one hour before closing.

Where: Buller’s Way, Abbotsbury, Weymouth, DT3 4LA

Tel: 01305 871387

More details: abbotsbury-tourism.co.uk/gardens

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