Colombian botanist risking his life to preserve nature’s memory

Atta Ur Rehman KhanWeb Editor & Columnist

03rd Jan, 2020. 07:33 pm
Colombian botanist

For the last three decades, botanist Julio Betancur has braved minefields and penetrated deep into jungle territory infested with drug traffickers and armed gangs in a bid to document Colombia’s rich biodiversity, BOL News learnt.

Colombia is second only to Brazil for its incredible range of fauna and flora.

Armed only with a notebook and gardening shears, Betancur has taken considerable risks to collect plant cuttings.

He’s contributed 4% of the 600,000 samples in the University of Colombia’s herbarium.

There have been close calls including “a slightly violent” encounter with a group of drug runners Betancur and his colleagues came across in the jungle.

“Without realising it, we were putting ourselves in the eye of the storm,” Betancur said.

Fortunately, the drug traffickers accepted their explanations and left them alone. On another occasion, local peasants freed them from a minefield.

“If it hadn’t been for them, the communities, we wouldn’t be here telling the story,” said Betancur.

The 59-year-old, a biologist, university professor and collector of bromeliads – which include the pineapple, Spanish moss and queen of the Andes – says it’s worth taking the risks so his country can “know about” its biodiversity.

While dangers lurk for Betancur, Colombia’s biodiversity faces far more threats.

 Book of forests

Wearing an explorer’s hat and with a rucksack on his back, Betancur forges into the mountainous Chinganza National Park some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital Bogota.

Suddenly, he stops in front of a plant with tiny yellow flowers known as a “chite” in Colombia: a member of the St. John’s-wort family.

He takes a clipping and wraps it in newspaper soaked in alcohol.

Back in the university herbarium, where Betancur works as a curator, he jots down in his notebook the color, size, smell, coordinates and the sample number that betrays his vast body of research: 22,999.

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