Botanists target war zone
15 December 2010
A group of botanists from Edinburgh has travelled to Afghanistan to train a new generation of plant scientists in how to conserve the region's unique but threatened plant species.
The team from the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, are at the start of a three-year programme in partnership with Kabul University to teach a group of 20 students how to identify and conserve plants.
Team member Dr Matthew Hall said the strategy of involving the Afghan people in conservation efforts is quite deliberate. 'I could do it myself, but that's not engaging the botanical community in Afghanistan,' he said. 'We're starting from scratch in training, research concepts and plant identification, but that way we leave a lot more of a legacy than a list with a lot of Latin names on it.'
Afghanistan has one of the richest populations of plants in the world, nearly a fifth of which grow nowhere else. However, more than 30 years of war has devastated the environment and put the survival of many species under threat. At the same time the fighting has severely curtailed plant collecting expeditions, so records of many species are limited to single sightings in the 1970s.
The team hopes to travel into the field with the students in selected areas where the situation is more stable to assess populations of wild tulips and irises including the highly rare Iris porphyrochrysa, recorded only once in the Bamian region of central Afghanistan. The information will be used to draw up a red list of plants in need of protection. At the same time a parallel programme is helping develop the Kabul Botanic Garden.
'I was bowled over by the amount of enthusiasm and concern in Afghanistan about the normal things – the quality of the air, conservation and the environment,' said Matt. 'In Kabul real life has to happen if Afghanistan is going to have a sustainable future – and biodiversity is part of that.'