Spring 2012 Newsletter
Climate Change and Cultural Challenges in Tibet

“If the snow disappears, people will disappear from the Earth.” – 57-year-old Tibetan man.

In the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, climate change is a phenomenon that goes beyond science. For the people who inhabit this part of the world, changes in the weather represent moral and religious issues, and in Tibet, changes are dramatic.

Climate change has its greatest impact in two ecosystems on Earth: arctic and alpine areas. According to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures in these areas are projected to increase by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by 2080.

This means in places like Tibet and the eastern Himalaya, where Dr. Jan Salick works, the study of climate change and its effect on culture are urgent.

Salick, senior curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, leads an international consortium monitoring the flora of a 2,000-kilometer transect of eastern Himalaya, including sites in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and China. She tracks the impact of climate change on the alpine flora as well as traditional Tibetan culture.

As climate changes, life in Tibet also changes. Glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented speed. Trees and shrubs are moving up the mountains, and vegetation perched on remote mountaintops is being pushed off by faster growing, more productive vegetation from lower elevations.

TibetUnpredictable monsoons are affecting crops. Pests and diseases are increasing. Tibetan doctors worry they will face a scarcity of medicinal herbs. Tibetans are concerned that the traditional practice of preserving food in the cold, mountainous outdoors is no longer safe. Their woolen clothes are becoming poorly suited for their changing climate, and the fatty foods that have historically sustained them are not as well-suited for warmer temperatures.

In Tibet, Salick says, the mountains are the sacred manifestation of gods. As she and her colleagues have interviewed Tibetans about climate change, she has learned that they fear that the god Khawa Karpo is angry and withdrawing.  Tibetans know nothing about global climate change or its causes and they interpret it as a spiritual crisis, says Salick.

Join Salick for a special presentation on Tibet and climate change at 10:30 a.m. Friday, February 24.
A Rare Treasure of the Climatron

Coco-de-MerOne of the great heroes of the British Empire was General Charles George Gordon, better known as “Gordon of Khartoum.”  Gordon died in a revolt in Sudan in 1885.

Apart from his military life and death, he is known for his eccentric beliefs. He believed, for example, that the original Garden of Eden was to be found in the tropical Indian Ocean islands, specifically on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles.

In St. Louis, we have our own tropical Garden of Eden in the Climatron.  

Only recently I became aware that in the Climatron we are cultivating a fascinating and rare plant. It is Lodoicea maldivica, or Coco-de-Mer, which towers above us with its fan-shaped, 15-by-30 foot leaves. It is a majestic sight, and one of the most remarkable species of the Plant Kingdom. Gordon would have regarded it as a genuine survivor from the real Garden of Eden.  

We don’t know if our specimen is male or female.  It has not yet bloomed.  However, we do have an example of a giant Coco-de-Mer seed. You can see it on display in the Brookings Interpretive Center, where we provide warm lights to simulate its tropical home. You may also see Seychelles geckos on the massive seed. They like to perch and warm themselves under the lights.

The Coco-de-Mer is also known as the double coconut palm. It is an ancient species, one of the most primitive, and native only to the inner islands of the Seychelles. The palm tree has become extinct on three of the islands. It remains present but endangered on the islands of Praslin and Curieuse.

Coco-de-Mer seedsThe Coco-de-Mer has long been a plant of almost mythical status.  Long before it was discovered in the wild, its empty seeds were washed up on the shores of Africa and India, hence the way it gained its name. Fabulous examples of seeds adorned with silver, gold, and gems can be found in museums around the world. They are symbols of eroticism and great wealth.  

Ironically, the tree is threatened in part because of its distinguished seeds. They are the largest of any plant in the world; some weigh as much as 60 pounds. Before more effective protection was put in place, the seeds were widely harvested and sold, which led to a dramatic decrease in the palms’ reproduction. These seeds sell for huge prices. On the internet auction site Ebay, I found a seed last week for sale for almost $1,200!

Habitat loss and fire also have resulted in the loss of more populations.  

This loss is being curbed in recent years with the creation of a special Coco de Mer Management Decree. The main population of trees now grows in national parks on the Seychelles. Trade of the nut is controlled, and the Seychelles government asked for this species to be added to the CITES list (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which forbids trade in endangered species products such as ivory, rhino horn and wild orchids. Nevertheless, despite these efforts the species is still listed on the international Red List of Threatened Species*.

I became fascinated by this remarkable tree when I spent time in the Seychelles some years ago, helping to create their National Strategy for Plant Conservation to safeguard the hundreds of native plants that are now threatened with extinction.

Coco-de-MerEfforts to cultivate endangered species play an important part in their conservation and highlight the threats of species extinction.

The Red List is the most comprehensive global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. The list guides conservation strategies for governments, non-governmental agencies, and scientific institutions. The Garden is a partner in building data for the Red List.

Read more Conservation Club articles:

Summer 2012
Spring 2012