The Story Of A Rare Orchid That Reappeared In India After 118 Years

Eulophia obtusa photographed in Bangladesh. Image credit: Md Sharif Hossain Sourav
Eulophia obtusa photographed in Bangladesh. Image credit: Md Sharif Hossain Sourav

Every time a new species is discovered in a world where species are racing towards extinction, there is reason to be hopeful. Sometimes, however, the same species is rediscovered again and again, and that is no less exciting, especially when the species is as strikingly beautiful as the Eulophia obtusa. This plant, a highly threatened rare orchid, was recently spotted in the Dudhwa forest range of northern India, 118 years after the last time it was recorded in the country in Pilibhit in 1902! The new finding has stirred up the botanist community to urgently initiate conservation efforts to save the plant before it vanishes once more. 

In this article, we read about the story of this fascinating plant with the help of the person who knows it best, Md Sharif Hossain Sourav, a renowned botanist from Bangladesh. He is the lead author of the only published scientific study related to the Eulophia obtusa and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Biodiversity and Collection Management at TU Dresden, Germany.

The Saga Of The Rare Orchid

Initially described in the 19th century, and last seen in India in 1902, and now again on June 30, 2020, Eulophia obtusa was almost forgotten in between before Dr. Ronald Halder, a birdwatcher and dentist, chanced upon its discovery in the Barind Tract of Bangladesh in June 2008. In December the same year, he posted an image of the floral bloom of the orchid on a social media platform. At that time, he was completely unaware of the identification of the species but wanted to attract attention towards the conservation of the habitat where the orchid grew. Unfortunately, the plant in the image remained unidentified.

"Surprisingly, I happened to view his social media post on the flower in May 2014, five years after he posted it," said Hossain Sourav. 

"The botanist in me immediately detected that this was something really unusual. It could be a species previously not known to grow in Bangladesh. I contacted Dr. Halder to learn about the exact location of his 2008 discovery and visited the site myself on June 27, 2014. What I saw there astonished me! Twenty plants with beautiful and attractive blooms resembling the images captured by Dr. Halder were growing in the area. I wasted no time and documented the findings in the form of photographs, videos, GPS coordinates, and field notes. I also collected specimens from the site for further studies. The plants were growing in private land which had been left untouched for long. Tall grasses and wild shrubs that emerge during the monsoon covered much of the landscape where these plants grew," continued Hossain Sourav. 

Hossein Sourav out in search of the orchid plant in a grassland of Barind Tract, Bangladesh. Image credit: Sakib Ahmed

Enthralled by the discovery, he returned to Dhaka where he began to investigate the identity of the species. His initial observations indicated that the plant belonged to the Eulophia genus which was confirmed upon his communication with botanists in neighboring India. The species was, however, not yet known. So, Hossain Sourav decided to connect with André Schuiteman, an orchid specialist from the Kew Botanic Garden, United Kingdom. 

"Schuiteman also agreed that the plant belonged to the Eulophia genus. He decided to go through old specimens secured from India during the colonial times and asked me to collect more floral specimens of the species. Upon revisiting the site in June 2015, however, I was in for a shock! The entire grassland landscape where the plants had been discovered had been converted to a vegetable garden by a local farmer. No grass remained on the site but only a few scattered orchid plants here and there, and none of them were flowering. I requested the farmer to urgently stop cultivation at that site and paid him monthly compensation for the same. I also planted some orchid plants in permanent grassland habitats in the area," informed Hossain Sourav.

"In the meantime, André found some old specimens of Eulophia obtusa at Kew Herbarium which had been collected from North India in 1902. Finally, in 2016, we were able to conclude that the new orchid species discovered in Bangladesh was Eulophia obtusa. A scientific paper was then published on this discovery in 2017," he further stated.

A Beauty Like No Other

Eulophia obtusa photographed in Bangladesh. Image credit: Md Sharif Hossain Sourav

So, that was how Eulophia obtusa was discovered for the first time in Bangladesh. Hossain Sourav revealed some of the most interesting facts associated with this extremely rare plant species:

"The most engrossing fact about this orchid plant is that it is a grass associated species. It is a terrestrial orchid, seasonally deciduous herb, bearing underground corms. It has a symbiotic relationship with the grass. Surrounding grasses shield it against strong winds. The grasses also provide shade to the plant and protect it from damage by harsh sunlight. Excess water is also absorbed by these grasses during the rainy season preventing the rotting of the orchid's tuber during this time," said Hossain Sourav.

But what makes this plant a truly visual treat is its eye-catching floral blooms. 

"The flower is like you fall in deep love at first sight!" exclaimed Hossain Sourav.

New Hope In Troubled Times And A Treasure To Cherish Forever 

A young Eulophia obtusa plant. Image credit: Md Sharif Hossain Sourav

Recently, Hossain Sourav also helped identify the species discovered in India. On June 30, forest officials and wildlife experts who were out on a routine inspection of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in the Uttar Pradesh state of India spotted the glorious bloom of the plant amidst the tall grasses growing in the area. 

Suspecting that it could indeed be the Eulophia obtusa, the team that discovered the plant then contacted Hossain Sourav for confirmation. The latter gave them the good news. It was indeed the rare orchid rediscovered in India after 118 years!

"This beautiful orchid definitely has marvelous ornamental value. Further studies are needed and measures must be adopted to propagate this orchid in India as a subject of potential horticultural value," said Hossain Sourav.

"I have come to know the Indian habitat area (Dudhwa) is a national park and tiger reserve in the Terai belt of Uttar Pradesh. So, it seems to be a safe habitat for this species in India. In Bangladesh, there is still a possibility of finding the orchid plant in the grassland of the Barind Tract. So, further surveys are necessary to take conservation action. It is also important to increase the wild population of the species by implementing a strong monitoring program in India. The species could also exist in similar habitat in Nepal. Therefore, field search is needed. An urgent research and conservation project is necessary for India because the population seems to be good. Strong in-situ conservation and subsequently ex-situ conservation can also be applied. After proper investigation, it is also necessary to assess the IUCN global status of the Eulophia obtusa. Currently, the species has been designated as "critically endangered" in both Bangladesh and India," he explained.

Conservation efforts have already been implemented in Bangladesh by Hossain Sourav and his team in the hope that the plant still survives in its original habitat or somewhere in a habitat similar to where it was discovered in 2008. 

"Currently, we have taken the small land where the Eulophia obtusa was discovered in Bangladesh on lease for three years to restore the habitat. If even a single plant of the species grows here within this time, we plan to purchase the land from the owner and conserve it. Me and my team members, Sayam U. Chowdhury, Farhad Ahsan Pavel, Sakib Ahmed, Mohammod Foysal, Abida Rahman, and Nazim Uddin Khan Prince are also engaged in conducting surveys of other potential habitats in the area for the existence of the species and in creating local awareness about its conservation. Also, I have given one specimen of the plant to an orchid tissue culture specialist of Rajshahi University to propagate the plant ex-situ," he continued.

Four Eulophia obtusa plants at the Barind Tract site in 2014. Image credit: Md Sharif Hossain Sourav

"Many plant species are going extinct even before being known by conservationists and scientists. Plants continue to get little attention in the world. There is less research on plants than on other groups of wildlife. Lack of funding is also a major issue. Each species has a vital role in the ecosystem, and their loss could have implications far worse than we can imagine," warned Hossain Sourav. 


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