Yanuar Ishaq DC, a member of Fauna & Flora’s Indonesia team who accompanied the expedition and photographed the orchid, believes that the plant’s status on the IUCN Red List merits a reappraisal: “This endemic species has a narrow distribution within a specific habitat, and a population of fewer than 100 individuals in the wild. With this valuable information, it can be proposed to change the conservation status from ‘Not Evaluated’ to ‘Critically Endangered’ so that future protection efforts will increase, based on scientific evidence, and with enforceable regulations. Every kind of living thing in an ecosystem is valuable, and we don’t want to lose any of them.”
The stunning blue orchid in all its glory. Credit: Yanuar Ishaq DC/Fauna & Flora
The recent discoveries are merely the latest chapter in the remarkable saga of Dendrobium azureum, which began almost a century ago. The central character is the intrepid Evelyn Cheesman, who relinquished her role as an English governess to study entomology in the 1920s before embarking on a series of solo expeditions to remote locations, including New Guinea and – you’ve guessed it – Waigeo.
The lady of the mountains
Known by the Indigenous peoples she encountered as ‘the woman who walks’ and ‘the lady of the mountains’, the former governess found that the hills were alive with the sight of orchids. Cheesman recorded and collected numerous species unknown to the outside world. These included a blue orchid found on the summit of an extinct volcano, Mount Nok, which was among the specimens subsequently bequeathed to the Natural History Museum in London.
View of Mount Nok, in East Waigeo Nature Reserve. Credit: Fibrian Yusefa Ardi
Fast forward to 2013, when Dr André Schuiteman, an orchid expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, unearthed a collection of unnamed Dendrobium orchids in a storage drawer at the museum. They included two specimens labelled ‘Orchid growing on trees; flowers deep sky blue’ – enough information for Schuiteman to suspect that he was looking at an undescribed species. Further close examinations and careful comparisons confirmed his initial impression. He named the new orchid Dendrobium azureum.
Waigeo is the largest of the 1,500 islands and islets that make up the remote and biologically rich Raja Ampat archipelago. Due to its geological isolation, the island is a hotbed of evolution that has given rise to the kind of species richness described by Charles Darwin as ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’.
The island is renowned among ornithologists as the home of the stunning Wilson’s bird of paradise and the quirky Waigeo brush turkey, as well as exotic marsupials such as the Waigeo spotted cuscus. The presence of the blue orchid merely adds to the mystique of this extraordinary haven of biodiversity.
Wilson’s bird of paradise is endemic to the rainforests of Waigeo and Batanta, West Papua. Credit: Bjorn Olesen
But this azure jewel is by no means the only botanical marvel endemic to this remote paradise. Unique forms of rhododendron, myrtle, soapberry and pitcher plant have also been found on Waigeo, hinting at the existence of other, as yet undiscovered, rarities. Fauna & Flora is supporting our in-country partners to help ensure that these priceless forests receive the protection they so richly merit.