Planting for the Future in Palau
As you walk through the Lost Forest area at the San Diego Zoo and soak up the lush green plants all around, it is easy to imagine yourself actually being in a tropical rainforest rather than the dry hills of San Diego.
Such is this skill of the San Diego Zoo Horticulture Department – bringing the Lost Forest, and all the other areas, of the Zoo to life for both the animals and our guests. They grow and care for ancient cycads, majestic palms, and so much more, from all over the world. Working with the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the Institute, the Horticulture department will be sharing some of these skills in a conservation effort to help the real tropical forests of Palau.
Where is Palau? The 250 islands that make up the Republic of Palau lie east of the Philippines, at the tail-end of Micronesia. If you have heard anything about Palau (and that it is a big if), you have probably heard about the beautiful coral reefs and the incredible scuba diving areas to be found there. Internationally recognized as a leader in protecting marine ecosystems, Palauans have seen their conservation efforts rewarded with healthy coral ecosystems as well as a healthy tourism industry.
But they also boast incredible tropical forests, a habitat becoming increasingly rare in the Pacific.
With an area of only 177 square miles, the Palau manage to support incredible tropical forest with over 730 native plants, 150 of which are found only on Palau. Recognizing the many threats their tropical forests are facing—from development, climate change, increased typhoons, wild fire, and more—the people of Palau are now working to actively conserve their rich flora as well as their marine resources.
San Diego Zoo Global is partnering with various groups on Palau to aid in this extension of conservation work.
To begin with, we will be running workshops in Palau to help develop and expand the nurseries focused on native plants. Within the Applied Plant Ecology division, San Diego Zoo Global has expertise in collecting and processing seed from wild plants, monitoring for peak ripeness and collecting to ensure full representation of genetic diversity. Within Zoo Horticulture, staff has expertise in growing cycads, palms, orchids, and a rich variety of plants found in tropical environments.
These skills will be helpful as Palau looks to grow more native plants in nurseries to meet a variety of their conservation needs: for restoration (following typhoon or wildfire), to enhance populations of rare or threatened species, for traditional medicines (so they are not wild harvested), and for native ornamentals (to limit importation of potential invasives brought in for gardens).
To get a head start in this project, Applied Plant Ecology mentored a summer intern to test initial propagation methods on a couple of Palauan plants in particular need of a population boost: a palm Ponapea palauensis of which there are only around 600 individuals left and an endangered cycad Cycas micronesica quickly disappearing from other Pacific islands.
With the proven conservation ethic of the Palauans and some training from San Diego Zoo Global, we believe these rare species, and plethora of others in the Palaun forests, will be around for generations to come.
Christa Horn, Conservation Program Specialist