Valuing natureBy Massie Santos Ballon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently released a list of what they consider to be the 100 most threatened species, and two of them are found only in the Philippines. In a statement regarding the release of the IUCN’s “Priceless or Worthless?” list, researchers from the Zoological Society of London said one of the group’s concerns is that the species on the list may be allowed to go extinct because they don’t provide an obvious benefit to humans. The comment contrasts with the findings from a study released the same week that suggests a more targeted method for identifying plants with medicinal properties.
The Philippines is one of 48 countries with threatened species, in these cases, a plant and an insect. Said to have been discovered in 2007, Attenborough’s pitcher plant is found around Mount Victoria in Palawan. According to the thousands of scientists who composed the list, this plant’s continued existence will depend on whether or not its habitat is designated as a protected area, and if authorities can enforce such a decision.
A species of damselfly or tutubi known as the Cebu frill-wing was discovered in 1999 and also appears on the IUCN’s list. The insect’s habitat is said to measure less than 30 square meters near the source of the Kawasan River in Cebu. Authors recommend that the area be declared off limits to humans in order to protect this species from extinction.
The fates of the species on the “Priceless or Worthless?” list might be more definite if they were known to be useful, possibly as food, medication, means of transport and so on. Given the wide variety of plants alone worldwide, for example, identifying those with medicinal properties is still arguably akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.
Every culture has relied on particular plants for various remedies, from headache relief to helping blood clot in wounds. However, pharmaceutical companies have not confirmed the efficacies of all the plants cited in folklore. Though an estimated 25 percent of medicines worldwide are derived from plants, only a very small fraction of the plants traditionally used for healing have actually been studied. Other species have been identified by more hit-or-miss methods, and the result is that the efficacy of some traditional plant-based medicines have been called into question.
“Traditional knowledge enhances health worldwide and is considered crucial in preventing the deterioration of local healthcare,” the team wrote. To help direct search efforts, the researchers focused on particular groups of plants collected from South Africa, Nepal and New Zealand. In each region, they started with one species of plant known to have medicinal properties and then worked to establish that one plant’s relationships with other species, as well as if those other species had been traditionally held to also have medicinal properties.
“Our observations reveal the predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting,” wrote the international team of researchers who compared the plant lineages. For example, they noted that the sample from Nepal was linked to around 7,000 plant species in the region, and of that number nearly a thousand species were traditional known to have medicinal benefits. By focusing on this one group, they could see if the 1,000 beneficial plants were clustered in smaller subgroups. If so, this suggested that other, less studied plants in those same subsets might be more likely to prove equally beneficial.
The plant study was published online the week of Sept. 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
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