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Three Gorges Garden in Crisis

16 August 2007
Adiantum reniforme is among the threatened plants that have lost their safe harbour 

Adiantum reniforme var. sinense is among the threatened
plants that have lost their safe harbour

Image from 

The Three Gorges Botanical Garden for Rare and Special Plants, located in Chongqing in western China, has been closed due to funding shortages.

Five years ago, more than 10,000 plants barely escaped inundation by the Three Gorges Reservoir when Xiang Xiufa, a former fish pond farmer, sold his business and dedicated himself to saving the plants.

He and his team raced against time to rescue the wild plants from the rising water and by mid-2004 had succeeded in preserving nearly 10,000 rare plants of 175 species in the botanical garden.  

Supported by China's top botanists, the new garden received funds from the State Forestry Bureau for its first stage of development. The money was soon used up in constructing the garden's infrastructure. Xiang sold his fishing business with its 300,000 yuan ($37,500) annual income and part of his residence to pay for transplanting wild plants and paying the workers' wages.

Without the rescue, the plants, many of which have survived on Earth for millions of years, would have disappeared completely when the reservoir began storing water. To many botanists, the garden served as an asylum for the region’s rare and endangered plant species and as a gene bank for China’s plant diversity.

The Three Gorges reservoir started storing water in June 2003. When the land began subsiding under the flooding, people in local communities could be relocated, and animals could flee. “But plants, they don’t have a mouth to shout for help or legs to run,” said Li Zhenyu, a senior scientist with the Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “We must help them to escape.”

The Three Gorges region is home to various rare plant species. More than 50 of these survived the glaciers of ancient times, and the region has been regarded as China’s strategic base for plant resources. Around 300 plant species in total need rescue from the inundation.

Xiang Xiufa, a local businessman who loves plants, decided to set up an asylum for the endangered plants. With the help of a few scientists, he obtained roughly 400,000 RMB (approx. US$53,000) in government funding. He raced against the water impoundment process and rescued Myricaria laxiflora, an evergreen shrub restricted to the banks of the Yangtze, from the river’s sandy shores. In 2002, he moved the specimens from a small island in the Wushan section of the Yangtze. The rare plant, which had evolved for thousands of years from the Himalaya mountains to the Three Gorges’ region, finally settled down at the garden.

Xiang also saved Adiantum reniforme var. sinense, a rare and endangered fern with only four known remaining populations restricted to the Three Gorges region. The plant has relatives in Africa and in the Azores Islands of the Atlantic Ocean, and has significant scientific value in its geological distribution and relationship with these sub-species. Xiang transplanted it from Wuling of Wanzhou. He also made room for rare species such as the Spinulose tree fern, nicknamed the “live fossil plant,” the 20-meter-high crape myrtle, and the giant Chinese mahonia.

The rescues weren’t always easy. When Xiang dug up the giant Chinese mahonia above a steep cliff in 2002, the falling tree broke two of his ribs. The following year, he was bitten by a poisonous snake during transplanting, and barely survived with a maimed finger.

When no additional funding came in, the garden gradually slid into a hopeless situation. During the severe drought of 2006, there was not even enough money to buy water, and Xiang was forced to see the plants he risked his life for wither away and perish before his eyes. The Cupressaceae died, the 20-meter high crape myrtle died, the Pistacia chinesis Bunge died, and the Dendronenthamia japonica var. chinensis died.

In early June, Xiang sent a letter to the government, reporting that, “the garden has turned into a waste hill, and it is urgent to take protection measures against illegal logging, pests, and fire.” He received two fire extinguishers from the local forestry authority in response. This was the only aid the garden received from the government after five years.

The plants are still there - for now - but Xiang urgently needs immediate support if these rarities are to have a hope of survival any longer. 

Read more on this story on China Daily

More about saving plants in the Three Gorges region 

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