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Will the World's Largest Flower Become Extinct?

Updated: Dec 17, 2019


I was contemplating a trip to the Cameron Highlands while travelling in West Malaysia recently and did some read up on the Internet. A couple of articles mentioned that it is becoming rare to see a Rafflesia, the world's largest flower, in the Cameron Highlands these days. Further diggings came up with more articles declaring that all known species of the Rafflesia flowers are classified as "endangered", some already extinct.

The number of Rafflesia sightings in Cameron Highlands in recent years have dropped so drastically that eco-tour agencies are pulling Rafflesia out of all their adventure packages — there is no guarantee that a Rafflesia can be found to show adventure-seekers. This is none other than an affirmation that there are far fewer Rafflesia sightings these days. Some blogs claimed that Rafflesia sightings in Cameron Highlands is about once every 3 months.

In 2006, the year that I first saw a Rafflesia for myself in Cameron Highlands, the frequency was about 1-2 sightings every week.

Will the Rafflesia flowers become extinct in the near future? It could be possible and the scarcity of spotting them in Cameron Highlands is already an indication that the day may come sooner than expected — unless aggressive conservation measures are enforced.

Read on further for some facts about Rafflesia and why the rare flowers are becoming even rarer. I will also share my adventure with Rafflesia flowers below.

Facts about Rafflesia

  • It is a flowering plant that has no roots, no stems nor leaves. And is a single flower with usually five petals (or lobes).

  • It is parasitic to the vine in the genus tetrastigma, not just any trees. It gets all the water and nutrients it needs from the host vine.

  • The diameter of a full bloom flower can be over 100 cm and weighs 10 Kg.

  • It gives off a smell that is similar to "rotting meat" and is locally called "corpse flower". The smell is used to attract flies to help in the pollination process.

  • It takes a Rafflesia bud 6-21 months to grow before it blooms for 5-7 days only.

  • There are both male and female Rafflesia flowers.

  • There are 28 known species, all found in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines). Apart from the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, different species of Rafflesia can also be found in Sarawak and Sabah.

You can read more about Rafflesia by asking Google.

Factors Causing Rafflesia Decline

Firstly, let's understand how Rafflesia flowers pollinate and begin its life cycle.

During pollination, the male flower gives a pungent odor to attract flies, the pollinators, which will help to transport pollen to a nearby female flower. This means that both the male and female flowers must be blooming at the same time and in near proximity. Each fruit produced contains a smooth flesh and thousands of seeds. As the female flower withers, its fruits are exposed and eaten by treeshrews, which helps to scatter the seeds throughout the forest.

A seed needs to be in contact with a tetrastigma vine before it can invade and get nutrients from the host vine. As the seed grows, a bud will emerge on the host vine and continue to grow until it blooms into a flower. (For clarity, refer to Wikipedia for the life cycle diagram.)

From the natural pollination process and life cycle of the Rafflesia, it can be observed that they have high failure rate.

1. If a male and a female flower are not in full bloom simultaneously in a 7-day window and in close proximity, pollination will never take place.

2. The pollinators need to visit the male flower first before the female one.

3. The seeds need to be scattered near to tetrastigma vine, else, they will not grow. So, not all the thousands of seeds get to become buds.

4. The buds are highly dependent on the nutrients from the host vines. If the vines die, they die. Even if the vine is alive, the buds themselves have a high mortality rate — they remain as buds until the end of their life. Only a very small percentage will bloom.

And that is why the Rafflesia flowers are so rare.

To make matters worse, destruction of the Rafflesia's habitats, due to logging and reduction in sizes of rain forests in Southeast Asia, further reduced their numbers. Rafflesia are also being illegally harvested by locals to sell, as traditional remedy for injuries and infertility, for a hefty price. And reduction of both the tetrastigma vines and population of treeshews can also affect the Rafflesia flowers, which are highly dependent on them.

And, experiments to artificially cultivate the Rafflesia have all failed so far. Therefore, the best approach is still through conservation and protection of the rain forest.

My Rafflesia Encounter in 2006

My first time to the Cameron Highlands was in August 2006, being part of my first backpacking travel in West Malaysia. I joined an eco-tour to see the Rafflesia flower, mossy forest, an Orang Asli (native) village and a tea plantation in the highlands. It was not difficult to be able to see the flowers then — new full blooms could be found in the forest almost every week.

We were very lucky on the day of the adventure. First, we did not have to trek very far into the forest to reach the large flower — took us less than 20 minutes. The guide told us that the Rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii) was already in its 5th day of bloom and would be withering soon.

It could be seen from the photo below that the flower was already starting to wither when observed from the side. The pungent odor from the flower was not very strong but it was still able to attract flies to help carry its pollen.

A close-up look at its spiky core, the texture of the petals and also those white spots inside the core. Hopefully, someone can tell me how to differentiate between a male and female flower. Interestingly, such information is not clearly elaborated on the Internet.

No idea how big this Rafflesia was? The size of the core's diaphragm was bigger than my hand. The largest diameter of the flower was about 80 cm. Don't worry about my hand, Rafflesia flowers are not carnivorous and that opening is not a mouth.

Less than 10 metres away, the bud of another Rafflesia was spotted. It's size was a little bigger than a basketball — I unknowingly took the photo with my foot in it and that will give you an idea how big the bud was. The guide explained that it usually took many months for a Rafflesia bud to nurture to that size. If all went well, it would be a full grown flower in another few days, if not weeks.

And that's how easy it was to have a Rafflesia to show adventure-seekers every week — in those days.

And we were triple lucky! We saw another full-grown Rafflesia but a slightly smaller one some short distance away. That was two Rafflesia flowers and a bud on one trip!

Oh, that was me 11 years ago. When travelling alone, I usually don't take photos of myself. But a fellow traveller in the adventure tour insisted on helping me to take a photo, so I have this precious memento with a Rafflesia till today.

If there is another opportunity, I will want to see a Rafflesia again — probably of another specie. And I wish that conservation efforts, be it in Malaysia or other Southeast Asian nations, to preserve the habitats of Rafflesia flowers be stepped up to prevent the world's largest flower from going into extinction.

And if you are really interested to see a real life Rafflesia, you need to act fast. Do not wait until they became history. Instead of travelling to Cameron Highlands for the flowers, try Sarawak or Sabah to increase the chances of seeing them.

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