Life & Style | Environment

Discovering a lost world of rat-eating plants in the Philippines

He has discovered strange plants that eat monkeys and rats in the forest of the Philippines, identified pre-historic plants in Venezuelan jungles, chanced upon a remote plateau littered with gemstones... Jeremy Miles catches up with Stewart McPherson, the award-winning conservationist

  • By Jeremy Miles, Friday magazine
  • Published: 15:42 October 9, 2012
  • Friday

Stewart McPherson
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Stewart has made several expeditions to Mount Roraima, a huge plateau deep in the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela.
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The small jungle rat couldn’t resist the temptation. The sweet-smelling water, which lay in the large, red pitcher-shaped flower – nepenthes attenboroughii in case you are wondering – was too delicious to ignore.

Crouching on the lip of the flower it peered in, something it should never have done. The next moment, thanks to the petal’s waxy surface, it lost its grip and slipped smoothly into the rain water that had collected inside the pitcher.

For a few seconds, the rat struggled desperately to extricate itself from the fluid and scramble up the pitcher’s wall, but the downward facing spines in it prevented the rodent from escaping.

What happened next is something that continues to remain a source of fascination for not just naturalists and botanists, but for anybody interested in living creatures. The flower began to release enzymes into the liquid, which slowly began to digest the rat. In less than a day, little remained of the rodent. And the flower readied itself to repeat its act.

If it wasn’t for naturalist Stewart McPherson, few would have known that such a plant exists. An expert in carnivorous plants, the 29-year-old has made it his life’s mission to travel to some of the world’s most remote regions in search of these unknown species.
It was in 2009 that he first made international headlines when it was revealed that he had discovered a huge, but previously unknown variety of pitcher plant growing on Mount Victoria and Mount Sagpaw in the highlands of the western island of Palawan in the Philippines.

The real Indiana Jones

Sitting in the same home where as a child he used to give his astonished parents detailed lectures on the mechanics of the Venus flytrap, now he talks about the kind of expeditions that, to most of us, are the stuff of Indiana Jones movies. Like the time he was guided up a distant mountain in the Philippines by a trio of machete-wielding murderers.

“We were on land used by a penal colony,” he explains of the area he was trekking through when he found another rare carnivorous plant. “We had to get special permission. The prison authorities eventually agreed, but insisted we took these guys with us as guides.

“It was an amazing trek, and when we finally got to the top – 2,000 metres up – we discovered a plant, nepenthes deaniana, that hadn’t been seen since 1899.”
The nepenthes deaniana is a very large carnivorous pitcher plant that grows only on Thumb Peak, the land that was being used as a penal colony. Because of this, the area was relatively inaccessible and unexplored. It took weeks of planning and lots of paperwork in order to explore the area.

I ask how Stewart got on with the murderers. “Oh they were great fellows, absolutely lovely chaps... and an enormous help clearing our path with their machetes.” Wasn’t he just a little bit worried? Stewart laughs, “No, not at all. I think they might have had some awkward questions to answer if we hadn’t come back.”

The largest recorded pitcher plant – which Stewart discovered in the Philippines – the nepenthes attenboroughii, can hold more than 1.5 litres of water. The plant is designed to be insectivorous, but is big enough to devour rodents, or even small monkeys that slip inside.

It employs the same mechanism that all other carnivorous pitcher plants have, except most are only big enough to devour flies, bugs, mosquitos and spiders.

The press had a field day when they discovered that not only was this plant big enough to trap rats and digest them with its flesh-eating enzymes, but that Stewart had named it in honour of his hero, broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Stewart has always admired Sir David’s work in promoting an understanding of the natural world. Sir David was delighted, telling the world that he thought the plant was “elegant and charming.”

Surveying the breathtaking panoramic views from Stewart’s family home on the Dorset coast, in southern England, it’s easy to see why he was inspired to become an eco-campaigning adventurer.

Where it all began

Across the waters of Poole Harbour lies the Arne Nature Reserve, while to the west you can see Holton Heath, a site set up in the First World War to produce Cordite – a smokeless military propelant to replace gunpowder – for the Royal Navy.

Just a couple of hundred metres to the east, coils of barbed wire and a big, old military-landing craft mark the training ground for the Royal Marine Commandos. “It was pretty exciting growing up here,” says Stewart. “There was always some action going on.” Action is something the ecologist knows all about.

Within a couple of years of graduating from university – he studied at Durham and Yale – Stewart had become a seasoned explorer and is now the author of 16 books published by his company Redfern Natural History Productions.
His travels in search of rare flora have taken him to some of the world’s most remote regions, from the mountains of the Philippines to the jungles of Borneo.

He has made several expeditions to Mount Roraima, a huge plateau deep in the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela. Skirted by towering 600-metre-high cliffs, this is just one of 100 plateaus found in this dense, nearly impenetrable region. The plateaus were isolated for 70 million years and in that time, developed a unique ecosystem.

Mount Roraima is particularly spectacular, a place of dark legends and superstitions among the hunter-gatherer societies that currently inhabit the ancient jungles that stretch for a thousand miles from its base. In the 19th century an ornithologist stumbled upon an overgrown peak. As attempts were made to climb it, Victorian scientists began to consider whether Mount Roraima could be home to dinosaurs or even undiscovered human civilisations.

Finally, in 1884 an intrepid botanist called Everard Ferdinand Im Thurn made the first ascent and described the sights that greeted him as “some strange country of nightmares”. He spoke of his findings in a celebrated lecture at the Royal Geographic Society. Among those in the audience was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who stepped out into the chilly streets of London that night with the inspiration that would eventually lead to The Lost World.

‘Like an island above the clouds’

Though Roraima does not actually have dinosaurs or lost civilisations, it offers what is perhaps the greatest concentration of unique plant and animal life known to man.

Roraima was formed by some of the oldest precambrian rock in the world. It’s 2.2 billion years old so fossil record is poor. The area is isolated so there is very little external influence on the plants that grow there, or animal life that lives there. This is what makes so many of them unique.

Among the interesting plants found there are stegolepis, a bizarre looking flowering plant that grows on stalks.

There are also examples of the carnivorous pitcher plants known as heliamphora as well as several amphibians and frogs, the Roraima rat, a type of tarantula and a kind of tepui swift bird. None of these have ever been found anywhere else in the world.

Describing it as being “like an island above the clouds” – so physically and ecologically isolated that 70 per cent of its life-forms are found nowhere else on Earth – Stewart fears for its future. The arrival of outside visitors has done Mount Roraima no favours. Until recently Stewart was among just a handful of experts who had made the arduous journey to this mysterious land on top of the world. He speaks of its dramatic valleys and labyrinths of towering twisted stone, a landscape studded with banks of quartz and carpeted with brilliant red stones, electric blue plants and amazing waterfalls.
Increasingly, helicopters carrying wealthy tourists are arriving, and with them comes the inevitable introduction of foreign plants and animals. There are also gangs of illegal gold miners and the temptation for visitors to fill their pockets with handfuls of beautiful semi-precious stones.

“On one of my first visits I counted 25 species of introduced plants that had basically arrived on the shoes of new visitors,” British botanical illustrator, Andy Smith, says. There are animals that have followed trails of food left by humans.”

Stewart is appalled. “The introduction of new species is wreaking havoc and will literally wipe out the ecosystem,” he says.

As a result of his fears for the future of the delicate ecosystem in the Guiana Highlands, Stewart made a documentary called Lost Worlds in a desperate bid to raise the region’s profile and to educate people about the efforts that are needed to protect it.

“I wanted to tell the story of this amazing place and do whatever I could to help. I knew we could face criticism because by simply showing the film we were revealing Mount Roraima to more people. On the other hand if no one knows what’s happening nothing will be done to stop it. It’s a dilemma but I think it’s really important that the damage and destruction is documented and shown.”

Andy says, “There probably have been more visitors since the documentary, but there are still very, very few. It’s just too remote, too far off the beaten track.”

It’s been a long journey

Talking to Stewart it is clear that as well as travelling tens of thousands of kilometres, he has made a long and fascinating personal journey since the days when he used to run the stick-insect club at his primary school. As a child he was fascinated by the local aquarium and would go there every week to look at the snakes, millipedes and snails.

He got the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the creepy crawlies when the collection was threatened by a virus and the curator, anxious to find them a temporary home, accepted ten-year-old Stewart’s offer to keep them in his bedroom for a while.

With his parents’ blessing, the tanks and containers arrived, and lined the walls of his room. The noise was extraordinary and school friends started declining the offer to come for a sleepover. But Stewart was delighted.

The fact that he would become a scientist never seemed in doubt, and after studying geography at Durham University he travelled on academic research trips to Germany and the United States before making his first journey to Venezuela. Since then, he has been on many other expeditions to places like Malaysia, Borneo and the Pitcairn Islands, and he has climbed more than 200 mountains to document rare, threatened, and little-known plants, identifying more than 35 new species along the way.

Ceaselessly fascinated by carnivorous plants Stewart has a network of expert contacts around the world including Andy, who has travelled with him to Roraima, Tasmania and the Far East.

Andy describes Stewart as “an absolutely amazing guy. Passionate about his subject, incredibly knowledgeable and very good at passing that knowledge on’’.
Stewart – who recently became the first recipient of the David Given Award for Excellence in Plant Conservation awarded by the International Union for Conservation’s Species Survival Commission – is busy making plans for his exploration to continue with future generations.

On September 20 Stewart became a parent with his partner Karen Battat. Their new baby boy is already being groomed to follow in his intrepid father’s footsteps.

Stewart revealed, “On his first day, I wanted to give him three presents: A fluffy blue elephant toy, which he will keep with him forever, and two presents for the future; an antique 100-year-old telescope so that he will grow up to be an explorer, and a magnifying glass so he will grow up to be a naturalist.”

Inside Info

Lost Worlds is available at amazon com. For more info about Stewart’s expeditions and publications go to www.redfernnatural history.com

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