KARACHI: A number of plant species in the country have become extinct while many more are on the verge of extinction and the situation demands that the government take immediate measures to conserve plants on scientific lines.
Pakistan is the only country in the world where altitude varies from sea level to 8,611 metres (the mountain of K2).
The country`s topography that has created a variety of habitats is also reflected in its flora and fauna. However, the country lacks a botanical survey department, as it exists in many regional countries, including India, and a book on the status of its flora.
Dr S. Irtafaq Ali and , noted botanists, shared these views with Dawn.
Dr Ali currently heads the Dr A.Q. Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Karachi University while Dr Qaiser serves as the vice chancellor of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology.
Both scientists are compiling the first comprehensive book on the country`s flora.
Elaborating upon Pakistan`s geographical conditions, Dr Qaiser said: “It is a land of contrasts in many respects and probably no other country of this size has such a variety of habitat and topography.
“There is a coast and, at the same time we have some of the highest mountains and the largest glaciers (outside the arctic) in the world. This is unique. So far, we have just explored 0.89 per cent of the total 5,700 species while 7.6 per cent (405) species are endemic belonging to 43 families. Around 700 plant species are endangered,” he said.
Pakistan, he said, is a signatory to the convention on biological diversity and had also developed a comprehensive biodiversity action plan in 2000. But the convention has not been implemented.
According to Dr Qaiser, a number of plant species earlier recorded from specific habitats were no longer found. The list of such plant species include Asparagus gharoensis (Sindh), Scaveola plumererii (Sindh coast), Scaveola taccada (Sindh coast), Allium gilgiticum (Gilgit), Arabidopsis brevicaulis (Hunza valley), Saxifraga duthei (Baltistan), Cousinia matifeldei (Chitral), Taraxacum chitralicum (Chitral), Pedicularis caeruleoalbescens (Chitral), Nepeta schinidii (Chitral), Bruguiera gymnorrhiza (Indus delta) and Sonneratia caseolaris (Indus delta).
“Asparagus gharoensis, bush species, recorded by Ethelbert Blatter in the 1930s no longer exists in Gharo, nor has been reported from any other part of the country. Holarrhena pubescens commonly called Khurchii, a medicinally important plant, was recorded by R.R. Stewart in 1950 around Islamabad and Nurpur.
“The greater loss, however, is of endemic species restricted to only a specific area in the world. For instance, Tamarix salina, a shrub commonly called Jhao, which was first recorded in 1852 in Esa Khel, Punjab, and then collected in 1960 from Khairpur. The species is cited in the Flora of British India, the first compilation on the flora of the subcontinent, and its specimen is also preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of London`s premier attractions,” says Dr Qaiser.
“Every species is an integral part of an ecosystem and its loss is an indicator that something wrong is happening in the system that can finally affect humans,” he said.
Speaking about threats to floral diversity, Dr Qaiser said they included habitat loss, over-exploitation of plant resources, forest consumption, agricultural land expansion, urbanization, soil erosion, lack of awareness, pollution, water logging and salinity and degradation of agro-ecosystems.
Woody biomass was declining four to six per cent a year which might be totally consumed in next 10 to 15 years, he said.
Referring to the official mechanism for plant protection in India, Dr Ali said that the country had a large department dedicated to botanical surveys which helped to determine the status of plant species every year.
“The determination of the status of a particular plant is a tedious job and requires monitoring of four to five years. What we are doing is not our prime job, though we have been able to determine the conservation status of some species with our students` help.
“All over the world, such tasks are done by governments. India made progress because they have an old separate department with thousands of staff members working in the field. They also have a permanent representative at the Kew gardens which helps them solve their problems. Its time that Pakistan also develops a government department exclusively devoted to the plant-related research,” he said.