New tea plant discoveries in Vietnam highlight vitality of protected areas

  • Two new species of tea plant, from the genus Camellia, have been described from a protected area in central Vietnam.
  • The discoveries, along with similar finds of other new plant and animal species, underscore the country’s rich biodiversity.
  • However, the excitement generated by new discoveries such as these tends to be tempered by the reality that they don’t always translate into funding for conservation or further study.

HO CHI MINH CITY – Two new Camellia species, a type of tea plant common to East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, have been discovered in a protected area in central Vietnam.

The species, named Camellia vuquangensis and Camellia hatinhensis, bring the total number of Camellia species found in Vietnam to 75, according to the Korean Journal of Plant Taxonomy. The country is a major center of diversity for the genus, along with China.

Of the new discoveries, C. vuquangensis reaches a height of up to 4 meters (13 feet), while C. hatinhensis grows to 6 meters (20 feet).

Such finds are not unheard of here, according Josh Kempinski, Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) country director for Vietnam. “It happens more commonly in Vietnam than in many other countries in the region,” he said in an interview. “There’s been a lot of major discoveries in Vietnam in the last 15 or 20 years, both in terms of animals and plants.”

Two particularly diverse regions are the Truong Son Mountain Range, also known as the Annamite Range, and where the new species were found, which straddles the border with Laos; and the rugged, remote limestone mountains of the country’s far north.

“They are two absolute global hotspots,” Kempinski said. “In terms of reptiles and amphibians, things are being discovered all the time and don’t necessarily make it to the media. One quite interesting recent discovery was a new oak species (Quercus trungkhanhensis) from Cao Bang province. That’s a pretty big deal, not least because of what oaks mean to people across the Northern Hemisphere, but also that that level of discovery is still out there to be found.”

Trung Khanh, the protected area along Vietnam’s border with China where the oak was found, is also home to the critically endangered Cao-vit black crested gibbon (Nomascus nasutus), which Mongabay reported on early last year.

Essential conservation space

These protected areas are critical to biodiversity conservation in Vietnam, says Filiberto Pollisco, Jr., a program specialist at the Manila-based ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity.

“They are the last bastion of species being protected, preserved and conserved,” he wrote in an email. “New species discovered are usually small or tiny ones because the big ones are already described. However, there are exceptions when bigger plants are found in the most remote part of the protected area, or found in the most unlikely places.”

Kempinski agrees. “One protected area is not the same as one next door, let alone one elsewhere in the world, and in a country like Vietnam, I would say the protected area network is really the difference in having any biodiversity left.”

Vietnam is home to 20 national parks and 14 nature reserves.

The discovery of new species such as the Camellia varieties can also benefit conservation elsewhere in the world, says David Gill, project manager for the Global Trees Campaign, a joint initiative between FFI and U.K.-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

“These discoveries are incredibly important, they help to feed into the conservation work on the ground, and they also often provide an additional form of motivation for the nature reserve staff working there,” Gill said in an interview. “I visited a reserve in China where there is a recently discovered conifer, and when you were with the rangers they were incredibly excited to show you the species.”

Experts also stress the importance of conserving endangered plant and tree species, which generally receive less attention than charismatic animal species such as tigers, elephants and rhinos.

“Although there’s a lot of tree conservation study going on, it’s still relatively understudied,” Gill said. “Tea species in China, for example, are massively under threat. It’s highly valued, so some people rip the whole plant out and take it to their nursery. Even if they are in a protected area, they may not be safe unless protection is strengthened.”

This is also an area of active discovery worldwide. There are currently around 192,000 plant species described around the world, with 1,730 discovered in 2016 alone, according to Gill.

In terms of trees, there are currently 60,088 known species, according to the GlobalTreeSearch database. Of that figure, 23,550 species have had their threat status assessed, and 11,377 of these are threatened according to both IUCN and national red list assessments.

As exciting as a new species discovery is for conservationists, such events may not necessarily translate into more funding for the species in question; high-level funding may be focused elsewhere, Pollisco said. “In terms of government funding or support, [a new species discovery] doesn’t have much impact,” he said. “It depends on the priorities of the government, which is usually development, rather than for scientific research.”

Benjamin Rawson, director of development and conservation at WWF-Vietnam, said it took time for new discoveries to be properly categorized for support.

“Many conservation initiatives for species will be based on the relative level of threat to that species, i.e. does it need conservation interventions,” he said. “Newly discovered species are not, by definition, a high priority for conservation. However, often we do not know the true conservation status of a new species because it may be described from only one or a handful of specimens.”

From the NGO side, Gill said such finds could assist conservation organizations in their calls for support. “It gives us something else to add to proposals and say that this newly discovered species is only found here, and I think that is definitely useful,” he said.

What is clear, according to FFI’s Kempinski, is that protected areas are absolutely vital to global biodiversity, and especially in Vietnam, where rapid economic growth and unchecked industrial development has had a severe environmental impact.

“What’s left of Vietnam’s biodiversity in general, as well as our ability to discover unique species,” he said, “is mostly, or only, happening in protected areas right now.”

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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