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Conservation of Biodiversity in Orquídeas National Park

Neomoorea wallisii, orchid species from Panama and Colombia – Photo by Eric Hunt
Scientists at Work, a blog of the New York Times recently, and the Christian Science Monitor recently featured a story about Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa, assistant curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, who is cataloging the plant life of Las Orquídeas National Park in Colombia.

Deep in the Chocó Biogeographic Region and isolated by the Andes mountains, Las Orquídeas National Park, named in honor of the hundreds of species of orchids known to grow within the area, is one of the remaining prized and unexplored rainforests that borders Columbia’s Pacific coast. With a unique assortment of abiotic factors such as elevation, precipitation, soil composition, and topography, Las Orquídeas National Park contains a high index of species diversity and richness.

“The tropical Andes is now the top priority for conservation in the whole world,” said New York Botanical Garden researcher Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa. “It’s far more diverse than the Amazon region, far more endemic species.”

Despite knowledge about the impressive biodiversity, researchers have been unable to document the flora because of the presence of illegal rebel groups who made the area unsafe for exploration. With a necessity to first tackle the social unrest, the Colombian Government allocated fewer and fewer resources toward conservation and research. But, with growing international awareness of Colombia’s botanical importance and the increasing threats posed by deforestation and land development, the Colombian government heightened security and made it possible for the New York Botanical Garden to team up with scientists at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to survey the National Park’s ecology.

Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa’s passion to investigate the more than 1,500 species of ferns and flowering plants that are thought to occur in Las Orquídeas National Park is evident: “Despite its local abundance,” referring to Disterigma, a treasured vegetation in the region, “I cannot get tired of looking at this plant and thinking that the park is the last refuge for this rare endemic species.”

A greater understanding of the flora may also shed light on broader ecological relationships, such as the pollination of the plants by bats and hummingbirds.

Though the results of such an experience are undoubtedly bountiful and rewarding, fieldwork can be difficult and tiring. Researchers painstakingly work to collect, process, and analyze samples, often waking up at the crack of dawn to travel long distances and engage in uninterrupted work, only to return late at night to a backlog of data.

Las Orquídeas National Park also highlights the necessity to find a balance between conservation and the development of a sustainable economy. As Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa describes, the indigenous peoples and farmers who live nearby are largely dependent on the land to survive and make a living, “providing locals with shelter, firewood, clothing, bridges, and food for them and their animals.”

But, researchers are hopeful that by providing the park rangers with the training to protect the area and locals with knowledge about sustainable farming and crops, Las Orquídeas National Park will remain a pristine national treasure.

Discovery and Conservation of Plants, NY Times, Aug. 25
New species emerge as rebels fade from Colombia’s rainforest, The Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 26

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