The Rafflesia is probably one of Malaysia's most well known icon of the tropical forest. The Rafflesia has been depicted in numerous tourist brochures, commemorated in Malaysian stamps and have also been featured on older editions of Malaysian coins. The Rafflesia, where it has been conserved, is also an important attraction for tourists whom are eager to see one of the rarest rainforest spectacle. But the Rafflesia, the giant flower of the rainforest, had once been banished, like the mentally ill, to its own asylum in the plant kingdom, separate and distinct from its kin, such as the garden rose or the sweetly fragrant flowers of the jasmine.
The Rafflesia, since Europeans in Asia first discovered it, had been a source of much speculation and mystery. Believed to be the largest flowers in the world, species of Rafflesia can attain flowers in excess of one meter in diameter. The large size, coupled with the foetid smells that exude from the flower to attract pollinators, have caused many to describe Rafflesias as 'monsters of the plant kingdom'.
The Rafflesia, is really a parasite. It grows within its host (a vine, a kin to the grapevine) and is no more than a tangle of fibres and will only manifest itself during its reproductive cycle (as outgrowths on the root vine, to cabbage-like buds, fully open flower and then fruit). The flowers of Rafflesia take a long time to develop. From the first visible inception of a flowering bud, it may take up to 10 months for the flower to bloom.
The flowering episode is however brief, and will last no more than a couple of days. Once the flowers are in bloom, no one is really sure how the flowers are pollinated, or how the seeds are dispersed. One botanist even suggested that termites, which would place it at the feet of elephants to aid its dispersal, could disperse the seeds! Beyond the visible display of flowers, the remaining life-cycle of the Rafflesia remains a mystery to botanists.
Botanists currently recognise 14 or 15 species of Rafflesia, and the plants are known only from Asia (namely, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo and Phillipines). Many of the species are extremely rare, and have been recorded from only a handful of localities. In Malaysia, we boast of having nearly 50 % of all known Rafflesias. Of these, R. cantleyi is found only in northern Peninsular Malaysia, and R. keithii, R. pricei and R. tengku-adlinii are found only in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). There are several important Rafflesia sites in Malaysia, many of which are worth a visit for they are also important conservation areas. In Peninsular Malaysia, R, hasseltii has been recorded from Taman Negara and Ulu Belum (an exceptional area of biodiversity, which has recently been gazetted as a conservation area). R. cantleyi, a Malaysian endemic, is more widespread and has been commonly observed in bloom around the Gopeng and Taiping area (many of the known sites have not been formally recognised as protected areas).
In Sarawak, R. arnoldii (the first species of Rafflesia to be described in the botanical literature) can be found at Gunung Gading National Park, about two hours drive from Kuching. All the Sabah endemics, R. priceii, R. keithii and R. tengku-adlinii, are found within protected areas, and of these, the former two species can be seen at Poring (Kinabalu National Park) and the Rafflesia Centre (Crocker Range National Park).
Apart from National Parks, a unique initiative had been launched to protect Rafflesia sites on privately owned land in Sabah. One such site is near the town of Ranau, in a small village called Kg. Kokob. A local resident of Kg. Kokob is conserving the site of R. keithii, one of the largest flowering Rafflesias in Sabah. It is a very commendable initiative, and amazingly the Rafflesia was only discovered on their land as late as 1995, despite it being a family homestead for many years.
Efforts to conserve Rafflesia on private land need to be encouraged. One can help simply by visiting these sites. In Kg. Kokob, between 1995 and 1999, a total of about 500 visitors (both local & foreign tourists) have visited this site. The small entrance fee charged goes a long way to enhancing the conservation of this most remarkable species. Similar initiatives need to be encouraged, and there are many other sites in Peninsular Malaysia, which can adopt these simple prescriptions for conserving the world's largest flower.
In Peninsular Malaysia, one of the most alarming trends is in the collection of Raffl esia buds for use in traditional medicine. Often the collectors are experienced jungle experts, local orang aslis, whom are paid as little as RM 1 per bud. The buds are eventually sold in the market place for around RM5 or are processed into medicinal preparations. The belief is that the Rafflesia buds will help mothers recover after their pregnancy. In fact, the local name for Rafflesia, Bunga Patma, illustrates how deep this folklore is our culture ("Patma", is a Sanskrit word for "fertility").
In a local wet-market in Ipoh, a Malay woman had once regularly sold Rafflesia buds. She had been asked recently why she had stopped selling them, her answer was ominous, "tidak ada lagi"(there are not any left). It is clear that the over-collection of Rafflesia buds will pose a serious threat to the conservation of Rafflesia. These practices, as well as the loss of habitat, are some of the problems undermining the efforts to conserve our magnificent flower.
Places to see Rafflesia