Orchids: Beautiful, mysterious, vulnerable

Monday Musing

[ Karyir Riba ]

Did you know that there is a species of orchid known as Schoenorchis mishmensis, named after the Mishmi Hills of Lower Dibang Valley district, as it was first discovered here?

The rich flora and fauna of our state have always been a matter of extreme joy and pride for us. Arunachal is home to some of the most exotic species of animals and plants, with quite a few found nowhere else in the world.

When we speak of exotic plants, orchids are a variety that immediately comes to mind. According to an article on the official website of the environment & forest department: “In India there are about 1,200 species of orchids known to occur, out of which as many as 610 species are found in Arunachal Pradesh alone.” No wonder the state flower of Arunachal also belongs to the orchid family, and is known as the foxtail orchid.

Our state is also flourishing when it comes to infrastructure development, more so lately. However, it is a sad affair that with development comes inevitable destruction. Orchids and its many species are no exception and are also being destroyed in the process, and it is feared that some might get eliminated permanently.

One person recognised this issue early on and has been working relentlessly to preserve and conserve orchids in the Mishmi Hills.

Pronov Mega, a nature enthusiast from Lower Dibang Valley district, has been collecting orchids, especially from demolition sites, and has attained success in preserving more than a hundred species till date.

“Out of the 120 plus orchid species that I brought back with me, I have been successful in preserving 110. I collect mostly from highway construction sites, and have collected many from the NHPC Colony construction site at Chimiri village,” he informed.

What started as a hobby for Mega six years ago has now become an earnest mission for the young man, who also happens to have Everester Tine Mena as his spouse.

Mega fondly recalls, “I had always been interested in orchids. I used to bring back pictures of every orchid I found during my treks, and try to learn about them. My dear wife saw my fondness and encouraged me to get proper training on orchids. Then in 2017, I finally underwent a training programme on orchid conservation, propagation and cultivation, at the Regional Orchids Germplasm Conservation and Propagation Centre (ROGCPC) in Tinsukia, Assam.”

Tine Mena cheerfully adds, “Whenever we come across any fallen tree or any forest area cleared for construction purposes, we have to stop and spend some time looking thoroughly for any orchids destroyed in the process. We bring back what we can and he tends them back to life in his nursery.”

Mega had been using the backside of his house as his makeshift nursery for years.

“DC Soumya Saurabh had come for a visit and she appreciated our work. She helped in procuring a proper nursery setup for the orchids that we have today. We are grateful,” said Mega.

Mega trained under his mentor Khyanjeet Gogoi, an orchid conservationist and founder member of The Orchid Society of Eastern Himalaya (TOSEHIM). On one of their expeditions in 2019, Mega, Gogoi and Dr. Krishna Chowlu (scientist from the Botanical Survey of India, AP regional centre) came across a new species of orchid. A sample of the species was put under observation in their observation centre at the ROGCPC, where it survived, and finally, in 2022, it flowered.

Schoenorchis mishmen-sis was discovered for the first time in the world by the trio, and it has been named after the place where it was found, i.e, the Mishmi Hills, which is believed to be home to more than 400 species of orchids.

Mega and Gogoi have another feat under their belts. Two more species of orchids – Liparis dongchenii and Lyparis platyrachis – were reported for the first time by the pair in the state, again from the Mishmi Hills. They had come across two unidentified epiphytic orchids during a field trip in 2019, and the samples collected were cultivated and observed in their observation centre at the ROGCPC. The samples thrived and flowered in 2022, and were identified as Liparis dongchenii and Lyparis platyrachis. The former was known to grow only in Sikkim and Nagaland, while the latter was reported only from Sikkim and Darjeeling.

The discovery of the orchids by Mega and Gogoi in the Mishmi Hills has very much proved that these species grow in Arunachal, as well.

Mega informed that many of his orchids were collected from Anguyee, an area near Anini that lies 1,300 mtrs above sea level.

“All the orchids collected from there have survived, flourish and flower during their flowering time. However, the orchids that were brought back from Mayudia do survive the climate here but they have never flowered,” he informed.

In December 2022, Mega won the first place at the national seminar on ‘Recent studies on orchids of eastern Himalaya’, organised by The Orchid Society of Eastern Himalaya-Assam circle, in collaboration with the botany department of various colleges of Assam.

Mega has no background in botany or any of its branches. His undying passion for orchids and a little nudge from his wife pushed him towards what all he has achieved in the field today.

“This is not enough,” he says. “We have only explored a small part of the Mishmi Hills region, which is very wide and spreads across Lower Dibang Valley, Dibang Valley, Lohit, as well as Anjaw districts.”

Mega plans to add a couple of rooms to his humble abode to host interested individuals, especially students, who want to learn about orchids, and plans to share his experience and knowledge on the subject.

Currently, he operates the Mishmi Hills Trekking Company along with his wife, and works towards promoting nature tourism. They conduct trekking expeditions, adventure tourism, and also provide training on various related subjects.

“Small groups of people arrive throughout the year from all over the country, and outside too, to explore the area. We plan field trips for them as per their requirements,” he said.

On the day of our little rendezvous, Mega had just returned from guiding a trek for a group of orchid enthusiasts from Bangalore. “They were very happy to see so many orchid species up close in their natural habitat,” he exclaimed proudly.