Daintree Bioprospecting

January 30th, 2008

Despite its bioprospecting potential, the unprotected tropical rainforest of the lowland Daintree could soon disappear forever.

Rainforests are full of the weird, the wonderful and the obscure – and the lowland Daintree in north Queensland is no exception.

For the past 120 million years, this massive expanse of tropical rainforest has enjoyed an unbroken stream of evolution.

“We’re talking about one of the world’s most diverse and highly-evolved ecosystems,” explains Rainforest Rescue Executive Officer, Kelvin Davies. “There is no question that the Daintree holds the key to new medicines of benefit to humankind.”

Kelvin is referring to bioprospecting – the search for new drugs and antibiotics within the world’s remaining ecosystems. Australia’s rainforests, say scientists, are a potential gold mine. Not only do its rainforests contain a high proportion of ancient plant families and different tree species, but Queensland’s are said to support about three times as many different forest types as the Amazon Basin.

Today’s bioprospectors search for everything from life saving drugs in the fight against cancer and AIDS to antibiotics, antiparasitic agents, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and other naturally-derived agents for commercial production. Drawing on ecological expertise, they claim they are getting better at honing in on rainforest species with promising attributes.

People have used naturally derived substances for millennia. For example, people in India use almost 1,000 wild species medicinally, Amazon Indian groups use 1,000 plants medicinally, and the native people of peninsula Malaysia use over 2,400 species of plants.

To date, compounds derived from rainforests have been developed for a huge range of applications. Their uses include anti-inflammatory, local anesthetic, antiparkinsonism, antidepressant, cardiotonic, antimalarial, contraceptive, and circulatory stimulant. Rheumatic fever, sciatica, Addison’s disease and multiple sclerosis are just a few of the diseases treated by rainforest derivatives.

Anti cancer prospects

Rainforests continue to show promise in the area of cancer treatment, with rainforest species making up 70% of the 3,000 plants identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as being active against cancer cells. Already, a quarter of the active ingredients used in modern cancer-fighting drugs are derived from rainforest species.

Two powerful anti-cancer drugs – vincristine and vinblastine – are derived from the rosy periwinkle plant in Madagascar. These drugs have helped to bring about an 80 % cure rate for testicular cancer, and 84 % survival rate for childhood leukaemia.

So why are rainforests such an important source of medicines? One reason may have to do with the heightened competition for resources amongst organisms. Over time, this has led some of the world’s most sophisticated natural defence systems to evolve. A full appreciation of what nature has been able to come up with is perhaps only limited by our imaginations. For example, some insects form bizarre symbiotic relationships which enable them to literally farm antibiotics on a microscopic scale.

Australia supports a growing biodiscovery industry. Current developments include investigations of chemical compounds to fight intestinal parasites and bacteria. Meanwhile, agri-chemical companies have been looking at new natural insecticides.

Queensland’s remaining rainforests may also be a source of health products and anti-cancer treatments. One company, for example, is developing a food supplement which inhibits cell activity in areas of the body prone to cancer. The research is producing promising results for the treatment of prostate cancer.

Despite their demonstrated benefits to humankind, rainforests continue to face threats from habitat destruction. Even in a first world country like Australia, rainforest is under threat.

Without immediate intervention, much of the ancient rainforest of the Daintree lowlands could soon be lost forever.

“Opportunities for biodiscovery are being severely compromised as rainforest continues to be cleared for development and taken over by weeds,” warns Kelvin. “By not acting to save this globally significant expanse of rainforest, we risk destroying the potential for contributions to human health for current and future generations.”

Unprotected & under threat

It is a common misconception that the lowland Daintree was protected as part of the 1988 listing of the World Heritage Wet Tropics. Two thirds of the lowland rainforest, however, was excluded from the listing and has been threatened by escalating settlement and development ever since.

Unprotected tropical rainforest extends along the northern Queensland coast, from the Daintree River to Cape Tribulation. The current connectivity provided by this forest is integral to the long-term integrity and sustainability of the ecosystem and its fauna. The international scientific community looks upon these rainforests and their protection as an issue of global importance.

“The Daintree lowlands are one of the most significant ecosystems in the world,” says Dr David Suzuki, a supporter of Rainforest Rescue and the conservation of the Daintree rainforests. There is incredible diversity – the region supports 3000 plant species and about a third of all Australian mammals.

Some Daintree facts

  • continues to be threatened by rural residential development
  • huge evolutionary significance (on par with South America’s rainforests) and untapped biodiscovery potential
  • last extensive areas of lowland rainforest in Australia’s Wet Tropics still linked as continuum with main upland rainforest massif to the west
  • critical habitat for endangered Southern Cassowary and Spotted-tailed Quoll
  • vital habitat for primitive Musky Rat-kangaroo, rare Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo and a myriad of smaller creatures little known to science
  • species new top science are regularly discovered

Our success to date

Prior to the 1988 World Heritage listing, the state government of the day approved a large rural residential subdivision in the heart of the Daintree lowlands. Today, the only way to adequately secure this freehold land is to compensate landowners. But the good news is many landowners are willing to sell.

Together with project partner The Daintree Rainforest Foundation, Rainforest Rescue has strategically purchased nine rainforest properties to date.

The blocks, home to a myriad of species including the endangered Cassowary, form part of the last extensive area of lowland rainforest still connected to the main upland rainforest massif to the west.

These areas of rainforest would have otherwise made way for housing. Instead, the rescued properties are now protected in a Nature Refuge, removing all development rights in perpetuity.

Rainforest Rescue owes its success to the generosity of its Australian and global supporters. “These seven blocks have been purchased with the help of the community,” explains Kelvin. “We have not had any government funds to achieve this.”

“Our Daintree Buy Back and Protect Forever Project also helped to prompt the national and state governments to contribute AU$5 million each towards property buy back in recent years.”

Although Rainforest Rescue looks on its achievements as significant milestones, it continues to harbour grave concerns for the rainforest which remains unprotected.

Where to from here?

With an estimated 200 properties set for development as residential housing by 2008, saving these critical tracts of rainforest is going to be a run against the clock.

Rainforest Rescue needs approximately AU$10 million to complete the buyback project. AU$5 million is being sought from the philanthropic community.

Once this commitment is secured, Rainforest Rescue will use this to leverage a further AU$5 million commitment from government to purchase and protect the remaining rainforest.

For enquiries into supporting Rainforest Rescue and the Daintree Buy Back and Protect Forever Project please visit www.rainforestrescue.org.au

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