Bamboo,A Wonder Plant 2
Bamboo is used for a wide range of purposes, but now it seems it may be under threat.
Every year, during the rainy season, the mountain gorillas of central Africa migrate to the lower slopes of the Virunga Mountains to graze on bamboo. For the 650 or so that remain in the wild, it’s a vital food source. Without it, says Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance, their chances of survival would be reduced significantly.
Gorillas aren’t the only local keen on bamboo. For the people who live close to the Virungas, it’s a valuable and versatile raw material. But in the past 100 years or so, resources have come under increasing pressure as populations have exploded and large areas of bamboo forest have been cleared to make way for commercial plantations. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated story. All over the world, the ranges of many bamboo species appear to be shrinking, endangering the people and animals that depend upon them.
Despite bamboo’s importance, we know surprisingly little about it. A recent report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) has revealed just how profound our ignorance of global bamboo resources is, particularly in relation to conservation.
There are almost 1,600 recognised species of bamboo, but the report concentrated on the 1,200 or so woody varieties distinguished by the strong stems, or ‘culms’, that most people associate with this versatile plant. Of these, only 38 ‘priority species’ identified for their commercial value have been the subject of any real scientific research to date.
This problem isn’t confined to bamboo. Compared to the work carried out on animals, the science of assessing the conservation status of plants is still in its infancy. ‘People have only started looking at this during the past 10-15 years, and only now are they understanding how to go about it systematically,’ says Dr Valerie Kapos, one of the report’s authors.
Bamboo tends to grow in ‘stands’（or groups) made up of individual plants that grow from roots known as rhizomes. It is the world’s fastest-growing woody plant and some species grow over a meter in one day. But the plant’s ecological role extends beyond providing food for wildlife. Its rhizome systems, which lie in the top layers of the soil, are crucial in preventing soil erosion. And there is growing evidence that bamboo plays an important part in determining forest structure and dynamics. Bamboo’s pattern of mass flowering and mass death leaves behind large areas of dry biomass that attract wildfire,’ says Kapos. ‘When these bum, they create patches of open ground far bigger than would be left by a fallen tree. Patchiness helps to preserve diversity because certain plant species do better during the early stages of regeneration when there are gaps in the canopy.’
However, bamboo’s most immediate significance lies in its economic value. Many countries, particularly in Asia, are involved in the trade of bamboo products. Modem processing techniques mean it can be used in a variety of ways, for example as flooring and laminates. Traditionally it is used in construction, but one of the fastest growing bamboo products is paper -25 per cent of paper produced in India is made from bamboo fibre.
Of course, bamboo’s main function has always been in domestic applications, and as a locally traded product it is wonh about USS4.5 billion annually. Bamboo is often the only readily available raw material for people in many developing countries, says Chris Stapleton, a research associate at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens. ‘Bamboo can be harvested from forest areas or grown quickly elsewhere, and then converted simply without expensive machinery or facilities,’ he says. ’In this way, it contributes substantially to poverty alleviation.’
Keen horticulturists will spot an apparent contradiction in the worrying picture painted by the UNEP-INBAR report. Those in the West who’ve followed the recent vogue for cultivating exotic species in their gardens will point out that, if it isn’t kept in check, bamboo can cause real problems. 4In a lot of places, the people who live with bamboo don’t perceive it as being under threat in any way,’ says Kapos. ‘In fact, a lot of bamboo species are very invasive if they’ve been introduced.9So why are so many species endangered?
There are two separate issues here, says Ray Townsend, arboretum manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens. ‘Some plants are threatened because they can’t survive in the habitat-they aren’t strong enough or there aren’t enough of them, perhaps. But bamboo can take care of itself-it’s strong enough to survive if left alone. What is under threat is its habitat. When forest goes, it’s converted into something else: then there isn’t anywhere for forest plants such as bamboo to grow.’
Around the world, bamboo species are routinely protected as part of forest ecosystem in national parks and reserves, but there is next to nothing that protects bamboo in the wild for its own sake. The UNEP-INBAR report will help conservationists to establish effective measures aimed at protecting valuable wild bamboo species.
Townsend, too, sees the UNEP-INBAR report as an important step forward in promoting the cause of bamboo conservation. ‘Until now, bamboo has been perceived as a second-class plant. When you talk about places like the Amazon, everyone always thinks about hardwoods. Of course, these are significant but there’s a tendency to overlook the plants they are associated with, which are often bamboo species.’