From five to over 50,000, the population of an endangered plant species endemic to southwestern China has grown in two decades thanks to the country’s efforts to save living organisms.
Acer yangbiense, a critically endangered maple tree confined to Yangbi County in Yunnan province, has been included in a rescue program as part of efforts to protect China’s most endangered species, by se focusing on “plant species with extremely small populations”.
FULL TILT RESCUE
Sun Weibang, a researcher at Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that the so-called “species with extremely small populations” have four main characteristics – an immensely small population, a narrow or discontinuous habitat, severely disturbed by human activities, and on the verge of extinction at any time.
In 2010, the Yunnan provincial government approved the outline of a ten-year plan for the rescue and protection of these species in the province, listing 62 plants and 50 animals. This was followed by a five-year national program starting in 2011 to save plant species with extremely small populations.
The rare maple Acer yangbiense was discovered by accident, when Chen Yousheng, a doctoral student at the Institute of Botany saw samples of maple in 2001. He discovered that a specimen, marked as Acer gongshanensis, collected in the Yangbi County was different from other samples marked in the same way. .
In April 2012, he traveled to Yangbi for an on-site investigation and found such plant species, spotting only five in the wild. Later, the species was named Acer yangbiense.
“It has hairy leaves, like a large palm tree. The fruit has a pair of wing-shaped appendages, similar to dragonfly wings,” Chen said, noting that the habitat of these maple species is ‘was clearly degraded and had suffered from human activities.
Pollination and seed germination have been two huge obstacles for scientists to raise endangered maple.
As the plants were far apart from each other, few seeds were produced due to the low pollination efficiency. Researchers tried the transplant but failed.
Later, Zhang Guoshu, a local villager from Yangbi, developed a traditional method: cut flowering branches from one tree and tie them to another tree. This technique induced successful pollination.
In the fall of 2008, a batch of pollinated maple seeds was collected.
In the natural habitat, the seed germination rate of this species is quite low. The local forest service sowed more than 50,000 seeds and only five plants were obtained.
But, the team led by Sun Weibang overcame the situation and mastered the key technology of seed germination, producing more than 1,600 plants.
So far, more than 50 seedlings of the maple species have been planted in Kunming Botanical Garden. More than 4,600 seedlings have grown in their original habitat in Yangbi County, while 38,000 are set to take root in the wild. “The species is now out of danger of extinction,” Sun said.
“Humanity is at a crossroads when it comes to the legacy it leaves for future generations. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying, ”said The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, a flagship publication of the Convention on Diversity.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, of the 4,357 vertebrates recorded in China, 932 are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
Experts have also found that 3,879 higher plants, out of 35,784 recorded in China, are threatened.
DECADES OF EFFORT
The Asian elephant is another species with an extremely small population – around 300 in Yunnan while there were no more than 200 in the 1980s.
Mammals were recently in the spotlight when a herd of 15 people roamed Yunnan migrating north.
Neither the herd nor the residents along its migratory route have been threatened, which is not surprising given the decades-long efforts by government and locals to protect the species.
In August 2015, an abandoned newborn elephant with an umbilical cord infection was found by an elderly woman in her pyre in the town of Pu’er. She gave the baby elephant water and called the wildlife rescue station.
Soon after, the calf was sent to the Asian Elephant Breeding and Rescue Center in neighboring Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.
Veterinary staff performed debridement to treat her inflammation and ingested nutrition. Since the elephant’s milk could not be prepared, the vets decided to feed the baby elephant with goat’s milk.
The first person Yang Niu saw after regaining consciousness was Chen Jiming. Chen had spent six years studying the domestication and breeding of wild elephants before being recruited by the Asian Elephant Breeding and Rescue Center.
To help Yang Niu grow up, staff at the center organized two female elephants as “temporary mothers” for the baby.
But at first, the two just chased Yang Niu away. It was very likely that the elephant calf smelled like goat. The staff got an idea and smeared Yang Niu’s body with the droppings of the two female elephants. It worked, and the two female elephants began to feed the calf.
After six years in the reserve, Yang Niu, once on the verge of death, has regained vitality, now measuring 170 cm and weighing 1,300 kg.
The elephant has become a sensation on social media. Staff opened an account on the popular Chinese video-sharing app Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok, to share Yang Niu’s daily life with the public. The videos have garnered nearly 10 million likes.
To date, the center where Yang Niu grew up has rescued over 20 wild elephants.