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KU completes 40-year research on flora of Pakistan

Updated October 26, 2014

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Delphinium Chitralense, an endangered species, is endemic to Chitral.
Delphinium Chitralense, an endangered species, is endemic to Chitral.

KARACHI: Research on Pakistan’s flora that involved countrywide surveys, investigations and a long process of authentication by foreign experts has finally come to an end at Karachi University (KU) after 40 years, scientists at the university told Dawn.

The last volumes of the Flora of Pakistan are under publication these days and it is expected that the work will be available by the middle of next year.

Currently, there are 222 editions of Flora of Pakistan.

“It’s a great achievement, though it took so many years. It’s the first most comprehensive scientific data on the country’s flowering species,” said Prof Mohammad Qaiser, senior botanist currently serving as KU vice chancellor.

Prof Qaiser credited the work to his mentor, senior botanist and former KU vice chancellor Prof Syed Irtifaq Ali, who spent more than 50 years in teaching and research and was the first, along with another researcher, to initiate the work.

“He is one of the most senior plant taxonomists in the country and the only expert help available to us. Prof Ali worked tirelessly for the research project despite his poor health,” Prof Qaiser explained reasons for the delay in the work’s completion.

‘Fifty species to be extinct’

Initially named the Flora of West Pakistan, the project, funded by the US department of agriculture, was launched in 1968-69 in two institutions, Gordon College Rawalpindi and the University of Karachi simultaneously.

The then chairman of the KU botany department, Prof Syed Irtifaq Ali, who is still one of the chief editors of the publication, and E. Nasir, a botany teacher at Gordon College, were the premier researchers who, with the help of other staff, collected the initial data.

Gordon College’s contribution, however, ended with the death of Mr Nasir after 17 years and the project, which was renamed after the fall of Dhaka as Flora of Pakistan, was solely looked after by KU, which was supported by the Missouri Botanical Gardens once the agreement with the US department of agriculture ended.

Discovered by British researcher Dr Wight in the 1870s, Campylanthus ramosissimus is an endangered species, endemic to Thano Bola Khan, Jamshoro district.
Discovered by British researcher Dr Wight in the 1870s, Campylanthus ramosissimus is an endangered species, endemic to Thano Bola Khan, Jamshoro district.

“Unlike the Indians who had a big infrastructure, huge literature and a large collection of species (all left intact by the British) available to them, we started from scratch. Gordon College Principal Dr R. Stewart’s collections that comprised species mostly of the Northern Areas were the only work available for our guidance,” Prof Qaiser said.

The Flora of Pakistan volumes contain information about the plant habitat, their figures, family, characteristics, details of their distribution, key to identification, local and scientific names, list of threatened species, plant utility (chemical and medicinal properties), if any, and citations.

The research work has mostly been done by locals unlike some other countries, where major research and editing in recording the flora is done by foreign experts.

For instance, research on Sri Lanka’s flora is written by Americans, Iran’s by Austrians, Turkey’s by Scots, Saudi Arabia’s by mostly Pakistanis and Iraq’s by an English team of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

Once information was gathered locally, it was verified by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens. “Experts at Kew were the best choice to verify information as British scientists were the first to carry out research on the subcontinent’s flora and, presently, they have one of the largest collections of its specimens,” Prof Qaiser pointed out.

According to Prof Qaiser, work by Pakistani botanists in this area is considered as one of the most authentic in the scientific world and there are plans to update and revise past volumes of Flora of Pakistan once KU experts are done with its last edition.

The country has more than 6,000 flowering species whose details have been recorded in Flora of Pakistan, he says. The upcoming volumes will carry data on at least 20 more new species that have been identified in surveys over the past seven years.

“It’s a misconception that Pakistan’s flora was similar to that of India. In fact, it matches only 30pc with our flora, the rest of 70pc is similar to that of Iran’s, Afghanistan’s and Central Asia’s,” said Prof Qaisar.

Regarding species endemic to Pakistan, he said although there was no detailed data available on them now, it was estimated that there were 465 such species in Pakistan, of them 50 species were on the verge of extinction.

Underlining the need for plant conservation, he said that like the Zoological Survey Department, the country should have a botanical survey department, the first step towards conservation.

“Once we know the status of our entire flora, both flowering and non-flowering species, then we can start work for their protection. Plant conservation is not an easy job the world over and there are about 100 endangered plant species that only exist in botanical gardens as scientists couldn’t introduce them in the wild due to multiple threats,” he said.

The relevant government departments should take an initiative and grow threatened plants, at least, in the parks declared protected. The last six to seven volumes of Flora of Pakistan are being published at KU printing press with the support of USAID.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2014