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A Conservation Network for Orchids from French Guiana

Volume 2 Number 5 - August 1995

Guy Chiron

In January 1994, the floodgates of the dam at Petit Saut, built on the Sinnamary river in French Guiana, were closed to start the flooding necessary to provide power for the area. The result is that over 300 km of forest are now covered with water.

In September 1993, orchid enthusiasts collected a few hundred plants from the area. During a second expedition, when the level of the water was twenty metres higher with access to all the levels of the canopy, 2,500 orchids and 800 plants representing other epiphytic families (Araceae, Bromeliaceae, Filicinae, etc.) were collected.

To ensure the conservation of this plant material and plants collected by members of another society, a network of both amateurs and professionals was set up by the orchid society, Association Francaise Culture et Protection Orchidees (AFCPO).

Aims and Prospects

The first aim of the network was to rescue the wild genetic material. Each organization in the network was given enough individuals of a species to represent the biodiversity of the natural population. In this way, the genetic variability of the original plant population would be maintained. As the variation in the prospective area is relative homogenous, we decided that fifty specimens were sufficient to satisfy this criterion.

The second aim is to artificially propagate different species and offer them to orchid amateurs, thus helping to ease the pressure on wild populations.

The third aim is to help orchid enthusiasts learn about conservation problems.

The Network

Professional organisations were not able to make the salvage operation a priority or provide long-term storage for thousands of plants. Voluntary orchid enthusiasts were able to organize a rescue operation but again could not - as individuals or a group - provide long-term storage. Distributing the collected plants between several professional and voluntary organizations, made the keeping of this collection feasible at a low cost for all concerned. This was a task that could be carried out by amateurs.

Today, there are eight organizations which belong to our network. They had several motives - first was the concern for the conservation of the flora and second, it was an opportunity for some organizations to acquire a large number of orchids and other epiphytes, with the aim of creating specialized plant collections. For example, the botanic gardens of Besancon were given all the species of the sub-tribe Gongorinae (Orchidaceae) and the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris received the collection of Maxillaria. Educational opportunities were also important for botanic gardens to illustrate biodiversity and the necessity of preserving it.

Apart from these major organizations, we have three complementary members: Guy Joulin, from the "Les Cedres" garden in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where many orchids from Guiana are already in cultivation, the "Fort d'Emeraude" society (Emerald Forest), which specializes in the conservation of plants from Amazonia and AFCPO which has created an internal conservation network which consists of voluntary orchid enthusiasts with greenhouses and the necessary equipment.

The amateurs were given species with few plants because they have less space and the large populations were divided into 2 or 3 lots. For example, the 178 plants of Rodriguezia lanceolata Ruiz and Pavon were divided into three lots. The largest was given to the cultivation unit of the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), Paris and the other two were entrusted to Guy Joulin and the "Fort d'Emeraude".

Size of plant was also important, the Conservatoire national de Nancy could offer more space than AFCPO members who were entrusted with miniature plants with small flowers such as Jacquiniella globosa (Jacquin) Schltr. or Reichenbachanthus reflexus (Lindl.) Brade (see Table). The other epiphytic families are less well represented as they were less familiar to the collectors. The bromeliads and cacti, were given to the MNHN in Paris and the remaining plants (Araceae, Columnea, Ficus, ferns) were given to the Conservatoire National de Nancy.

The Management of the Collection

The management of such a collection is complicated because it is allotted to different organizations. It is essential to record all information about the plants; their status and horticultural and propagation details in order to monitor the work done. Considering the constraints of professional organizations, only amateurs had the resources to accomplish this task. The AFCPO has taken charge of this aspect, concentrating its efforts on three points:

  • Periodical centralization of the data on the state of the population groups

An annual survey in April of each collection will include the numbers of each batch after death or division, verification of the plant name, observations on the growth (health, flowering, pollinating) with extra comments from the grower.

  • Help for the identification of species as the plants come into flower

The field data consists of the date and number (which gives the location and preliminary identification). The central register is updated as the accessions are re-identified; members being responsible for the collections in their care. Members are encouraged to take a sharp photograph of the plant and its inflorescence and preserve the flowers in spirit.

  • Recommendation of a programme of propagation compatible with the possibilities of in vitro cultivation.

The aim is to propagate the population groups we have in care. With these critically small population sizes meticulous records must be made of the crosses made between each individual plant. This is to monitor genetic drift in the subsequent generations. Hopefully each lot will be as rich as the original wild batch but the genetic composition of the population is bound to be modified. These new lots will be distributed to other botanic gardens to increase the chances of conservation of the biodiversity they represent.

Obviously each network member can sow the seeds produced by their collection. The AFCPO will use the extra seed for propagation and batches of plantlets will be presented to different botanic gardens with which we have links and a number of these plantlets will be on sale to orchid enthusiasts. This will help limit the pressure of collecting on wild populations. Naturally, as our resources and our manpower are limited, we will set priorities for propagation, based on the rarity of each species and the threat in the wild.


The first part of our conservation project (collecting, setting up of a network, distribution) is now over. During this phase we have shown that amateurs are able to run such a project. This can only be beneficial for communication between professionals and amateurs and so for conservation. We now have to manage our "shared collection" and a controlled propagation programme.

Other societies involved are the "Orchides et Plantes Epiphytes d'Aquitaine" from Bordeaux which took part in our first field-trip, "Orchides 95" from Paris which organized two trips to the site of Petit Saut. The plants collected on the first trip were distributed within the network, the orchids collected on the second trip were shared between the botanic gardens of Caen and Montpellier. Finally, "Fort d'Emeraude" is taking part in the collective work of conservation of the collection. All this may seem but a modest effort. It is nevertheless contributing to the realization by amateurs of the role they can and must play in the domain of the protection of the flora.