Biodiversity Protection and Conservation Strategies of Native Vanilla spp. (Orchidaceae) in the Amazon forest of Peru

Project location: PERU, Madre de Dios
Project start date: December 2017 - Project end date: May 2019
Project number: 2017-038
Beneficiary: ArBio - Asociacion para la resiliencia del Bosque a la inter-oceanica

This project aims to find strategies to protect and conserve exclusive species of native Vanilla in the Amazon forest of Peru, investigating the strategy of pollination and reproductive mechanisms that drive the spread of the species. Secondly the activities will be addresses to a potential use of native species for cultivation by local farmers, according to an agro ecological vision which preserves the integrity of the primary forest and favouring the natural pollination process by insects.

In order to check the health state of the populations and determine strategies for their conservation, the project addresses the study of reproductive systems of six species of the genus Vanilla identified in the area of interest: Vanilla pompona grandiflora, V. cristato-callosa, V.riberoi, V. bicolor, V. palmarum and V. guianensis. In fact, the reproductive system in place reveals information about the response to environmental pressure phenomena to which wetlands where they grow are subject. In particular, the study will focus on the reproductive response to fragmentation, with particular attention to the ecology of the pollinators.
Vanilla Plum. ex Mill. is a pantropical genus, comprising more than 100 species of epiphytic and terrestrial lianas belonging to the Orchidaceae, which is included in the red list IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as the most threatened and represented vegetal family. It is noteworthy among the genera of the Orchidaceae tribe Vanilleae as the most species-rich, widespread genus (Stern & Judd, 1999).
The only known populations in Peru, belonging to 6 recorded species, are confined in some wetland areas in the Madre de Dios basin, crossing Rio Tambopata, close to the town of Puerto Maldonado and surrounding Manu National Park.
The deterioration of these orchid populations is strongly linked with the vulnerability of their marsh habitat, threatened by human activities such as large-scale agriculture, cattle ranching, deforestation, gold mining and the presence of the “Carretera Interoceánica”, a large road artery, a physical barrier which cuts the forest, as put in light in a previously study on peatlands areas of Madre de Dios.
Modern studies of the diversity and natural history of Vanilla are needed in the Amazon because species of Vanilla have been poorly collected and are little known in comparison with Central American species (Soto-Arenas, pers. comm. 2007). Considering the importance of Vanilla as a globally-traded agricultural product and the vulnerable status in which many populations exist worldwide, this project encourages protection and continued studies of Vanilla native species in the wetland habitats of Madre de Dios, Peru, as an important reservoir of biodiversity with a potential use for agro-ecological purposes. According to Arbio vision, it is expected to safeguard the ecological balance of the primary forest by implementing native crops, compatible with the area of origin, with an intrinsic enhancement of biodiversity of the tropical humid forest bioma.
The deepening of pollination mechanisms and pollinators ecology will favour an integrated approach of cultivation with direct consequences towards local farmers. In fact they can take advantage of these discoveries to implement the cultivation system in which the pollination can be conveyed by insects rather than being only manual as occurs for most of the crops of Vanilla spp. in the rest of the world.
To find targeted strategies of conservation, a synergy of different methodological and operational procedures will be applied. The first step consists in acquiring the knowledge of the threatened species in deep detail, regarding their reproduction systems and population state in order to figure out the health conditions of the existent populations and their potential pollinators. On this study system, the project will be focus to carry out 4 activities, with conservation and agro-ecological purposes.

Based on two patterns of study system (autogamy and allogamy) which the 6 species belong to, firstly the project aims to test the connectivity level within and among populations.
Secondly, the project focuses on the investigation of pollinator biology and ecology of 2 spp. among the 6 identified.
A further activity is related to find out strategies in order to improve the connection within and between populations and favour the pollinators’ movements.
Finally, the project identifies which species are most suitable to be propagated both for reinforcing the vulnerable populations and for agriculture purposes, embracing the agro-ecological vision sustained by Arbio Peru.
Species potentially suitable to be propagated can be promoted in the Analog Forestry Model (see => supported by Arbio, in which will apply strategies to encourage their natural spread and enhance their pollination by insects. Regarding the scientific knowledge, the results will be spread through the support of the University of Naples Federico II, thanks the involvement of a PhD student in the project. The association will operate to spread the data regarding the pollination, reproductive biology and the propagation tests of native species of Vanilla through frontal meetings with the local farmers. The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation awarded a grant for this project.
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