Rare Black Pine Discovered in Sangu Valley of Chittagong Hill Tracts

Published : 08 Mar 2020, 11:34

Image: Black Pine (Podocarpus neriifolius) Image Courtesy: Isabela Foundation

One of the rare findings of our recent trip at Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is locating Black Pine (Podocarpus neriifolius) after 3 decades long search. Black pine is a rare medicinal plant usually grows in high altitude evergreen forest.

Podocarpus neriifolius is a species of conifer in the family Podocarpaceae. It grows 10–15m tall, though very occasionally taller, in tropical and subtropical wet closed forests, between 650m and 1600m altitude.

I was curious about Black pine while working on a publication of CITES guidebook for Bangladesh in 1990. Dr. Ansarul Karim, Professor of Botany, Chittagong University wrote the chapter of CITES guidebook on threatened plants of Bangladesh those are in international trade. He told me about the pine plant’s rarity and its medicinal values. From that time, I got interested to locate this plant from CHT. Whenever and wherever in CHT, I had visited; I searched for the pine but utterly failed to find the rare plant.

I am a wildlife biologist but in my graduation in Zoology (honors) course, my subsidiary subjects were Chemistry and Botany. In a later time while working with two famous Botanist, Professor Dr. Dijjen Sharma and Professor Dr. Salar Khan, I was inspired to learn more about our rare plants. When I use to go field to study wildlife, I always look into the vegetation in detail. Vegetation is one of the basic ecological components of wildlife habitat. Wildlife use plants as their home, food, nest, security and many other needs fulfilled from the plants. Great Ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali said that seeing a bird separating from its host plant and habitat is not enough to know the bird, you required to tell about the host plants which was used by the bird seen, taxonomic identification and detail ecology of the host plant, only then you became a genuine birder. Dr. Salim Ali defined this way of studying the bird as Field Ornithology and he who added a new section of Ornithology which is known as Ornithophilia. The evolution and adaptation of long down curved beaks and bills of pollen and honey eating birds like sunbirds, spider hunter is correlated and evolved closely with the epiphytes, orchids and some other parasitic plants. Dr. Mohammed Ali Reza Khan, a student of Salim Ali also taught me the same through my lifelong wildlife watch with him. Together with Professor Salar Khan and Dr. Ansarul Karim, we searched for rare plants of  Bangladesh like Rauvolfia serpentia(Sarpagandha), Salix tetrasperma (Indian Willow) and Rosa involucrata (Bengal Rose), Willoughbei edulis Roxb.(Wild Mango) and Wild Palm and able to identify their habitat and learned their population status.

During recent biodiversity exploration expedition in December 2019 at Sangu valley, CHT, organized by Isabela Foundation, I came across the main habitat of Black Pine with a few individuals. Sangu Forest reserve is the last refuse of this rare plant in Bangladesh. Mr.Sajib Rudra, Plant taxonomist helped me in identifying the species as Black pine. Local name of the plant is “Banshpata”.

Black pine Podocarpus nerriifolius occurs at a high elevation evergreen forest of Sangu reserve. We spotted 10 individuals of matured trees at Sangu Valley. Another 5 individuals were seen chopped by the poachers.

The name Podocarpus is derived from the Greek, podos, meaning "foot", and karpos, meaning "fruit". Common names for various species include "yellowwood" as well as "pine”as in the plum pine (Podocarpu selatus)or the Buddhist pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus).  Podocarpus are related to yews, and, as with yews, the stems, leaves, flowers, and pollen of Podocarpus are all poisonous. Additionally, the leaves, stems, bark, and pollen are cytotoxic. The male Podocarpus blooms and releases this cytotoxic pollen in the spring and early summer. The cones have two to five fused cone scales which form a fleshy, berry-like, brightly colored receptacle at maturity. The fleshy cones attract birds which then eat the cones and disperse the seeds in their droppings.

The red, purple or bluish fleshy fruit of most species of Podocarpus are edible, raw or cooked into jams or pies. They have a mucilaginous texture with a slightly sweet flavor. However, they are slightly toxic and should be eaten only in small amounts, especially when raw. Tolerates drought, deer, disease, seaside.

Some species of Podocarpus are used in systems of traditional medicine for conditions such as fevers, coughs, arthritis, sexually transmitted diseases, and canine distemper. A chemotherapy drug used in treatment of leukemia is made from Podocarpus. The wood of the plant is also widely used in Paneling, Musical instruments, Furniture and Carving. Black Pine is listed in CITES Appendix III and as Least Concern (LC) in IUCN Red Data Book.

To save these rare plants an urgent action is required by the Bangladesh Forest Department to patrol the area and make forest dwelling people aware about its ecological and conservation values.

Writer: Chief Scientist, Isabela Foundation.

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