Yenra : Gardening : Orchids : Unique national park for orchids to be declared in Africa

Orchid

Detail from Martin Johnson Heade, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art

The Tanzanian government has announced plans to create a new national park in a region known for its staggering diversity of orchids, marking the first protected area in tropical Africa set aside primarily for its floral significance.

The 52-square-mile park will safeguard part of the Kitulo Plateau, part of Tanzania's Southern Highlands. Known as the "Garden of God" by the region's local people, this remote grassland is covered for six months of the year in wildflowers; balsams, honey-peas, bellflowers, irises, lilies, and scores of terrestrial orchids -- many of them found nowhere else on earth.

The area also contains a variety of other wildlife, including unique chameleons, skinks, frogs and one of the world's rarest butterflies. In addition, the plateau is home to 12 globally significant bird species, including breeding colonies of blue swallows, mountain marsh widowbirds, and Denholm's bustards.

"The announcement to create this park is an innovative and laudable step demonstrating Tanzania's commitment to conserving biodiversity," said Dr Tim Davenport, a biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has been active in the Southern Highlands since 1999. "Tanzania is a leader in protecting wildlife and wild lands, and both its government and Tanzania National parks are to be congratulated."

Last year, WCS released a report documenting how the region's orchids were being strip-mined by local people, who exported the plants into neighboring Zambia, where they are eaten as a delicacy. In the report, WCS warned that some species could be wiped out in a matter of years without appropriate management.

According to Davenport, the Tanzanian government has invited WCS to continue its conservation work on the plateau, and to take on an active role as the park becomes a reality, particularly in exploring management plans.

Meanwhile, WCS continues its work in grasslands and forests across the Southern Highlands, carrying out ecological research, community conservation, tourism development, and support of regional administrations to protect this unique region and its wildlife.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is dedicated to saving wildlife and wild lands. With hundreds of field conservation projects around the globe, pioneering educational programs, and the nation's largest system of urban zoos, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo, the organization brings a unique set of assets to the work of protecting wild ecosystems. Central to this effort is inspiring people to get involved in safeguarding wildlife in an increasingly populated and developed world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working to make future generations inheritors, not just survivors.