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Research on rattan genetic resources conservation and use: the perspective and strategy of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute

L.T. Hong,
V. Ramanatha Rao
and W. Amaral

L.T. Hong is Bamboo and Rattan and Forest Genetic
Resources Specialist at the International Plant Genetic
Resources Institute's Regional Office for Asia,
the Pacific and Oceania (IPGRI-APO), Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia.
V. Ramanatha Rao is Senior Scientist
(Genetic Diversity/Conservation) at IPGRI-APO.
W. Amaral is Forest Genetic Resources Scientist
(Global Programme Coordinator) at IPGRI headquarters, Rome.

Ongoing research on the identification, diversity and conservation of rattan genetic resources will help to foster sustainable management and utilization of the species.

Until recently, little research was directed towards biodiversity or genetic resources conservation and genetic improvement of bamboo or rattan. By the early 1990s, however, the urgent need to generate information for the effective conservation and sustainable use of rattan and bamboo was recognized. The International Network on Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) requested that the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) take the lead in activities related to research on the genetic resources conservation of these two important non-wood forest products (NWFPs). Thus the INBAR-IPGRI Biodiversity and Conservation Working Group was constituted in 1993. Japan provided the financial assistance to IPGRI to initiate the programme (Ramanatha Rao, Rao and Ouedrago, undated). Research activities on rattan and bamboo are planned and implemented from IPGRI's Regional Office for Asia, the Pacific and Oceania, located in Serdang, Malaysia.

Work on the identification of the genetic resources of rattan and their diversity is expected to assist in maximizing the utilization of the species and thus enhancing conservation for sustainable management. This article provides a synopsis of IPGRI's activities in rattan genetic resources conservation.

The International Plant Genetic Resources Institute

The International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) is one of the 16 centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). IPGRI's mission is to encourage, support and undertake activities to improve the management of genetic resources worldwide so as to help eradicate poverty, increase food security and protect the environment. IPGRI focuses on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources that are important to developing countries and has an explicit commitment to specific crops. IPGRI works in partnership with other organizations, undertakes research and training, and provides scientific and technical advice and information. IPGRI operates in five geographical areas: sub-Saharan Africa; Europe; Central and West Asia; North Africa; and Asia, the Pacific and Oceania.


Rattan palms are found only in the Old World, distributed in equatorial Africa, South Asia, southern China, the Malay Archipelago, Australia and the western Pacific as far as Fiji. The greatest diversity of rattan genera and species is found in Southeast Asia. Calamus, with 370 to 400 species, is the largest of the 13 known genera and is distributed throughout the geographic range of rattans (Dransfield and Manokaran, 1993). In Africa, three of the four genera recorded are endemic.

The solitary-cane Calamus manan, a priority rattan species for research and development and for genetic resources conservation, in cultivation in Sarawak


A unique feature of rattans is the abundance and diversity of species. Sometimes as many as 30 species occur in one locality in what is apparently rather uniform vegetation. However, there could be habitat differences and subtle breeding barriers between species that are not yet understood. In addition, knowledge of the genetic diversity within and between species is still scarce. With the fast depletion of the tropical forests it is imperative to obtain this knowledge for the sustainable management of the remaining rattan resources. For commercially popular solitary-cane species such as Calamus manan the problem is more acute, as the rate of regeneration is dependent on seedling survival (in contrast with clustering species such as Calamus caesius which feature regeneration through the development of suckers).


IPGRI has formulated the following objectives for rattan (and bamboo) activities:

In the past few years a significant amount of information has been generated, compiled and distributed through IPGRI activities on rattan. Nevertheless, there is still a substantial gap in the information needed for effective conservation of the resource in many countries.


IPGRI's strategy to ensure effective conservation of rattan genetic resources identified four areas on which to focus the efforts of national research organizations: assessment and inventory; development and implementation of conservation procedures; rates of extraction and human impact; and development of methods for conservation and sustainable use (Ramanatha Rao, Rao and Ouedrago, undated). Not all of the areas identified are of equal importance for all countries in the region; activities are being developed according to the priorities and needs of each country.

Assessment and inventory

In situ conservation actions are required and will take priority while complementary conservation strategies are being developed for the rattan resources. Therefore assessment of the current status of rattan resources is vital for successful in situ (and ex situ) conservation efforts. Activities in this area include assessment, taking of inventories and analysis of distribution patterns, size of populations, rates of extraction, etc.

Development and implementation of conservation procedures

There is a need to implement different procedures for conservation in order to ensure sustainable management of the rattan genetic resources. This area of research includes development of in situ and ex situ conservation plans; assessment of seed viability and development of seed storage and in vitro conservation protocols; establishment and management of field gene banks; and formulation of guidelines for the safe movement of germplasm.

Rates of extraction and human impact

Some countries are witnessing a long-term detrimental impact from overexploitation of natural rattan resources. There is still a lack of information on the natural regeneration of rattan and on the socio-economic impact of exploitation and conservation. This information is needed in order to establish proper in situ (and ex situ) measures for sustainable utilization of the resource to ensure that socio-economic benefits are maintained.

Current rattan projects supported by IPGRI





Distribution and status of rattan in Bardiya district of Nepal

Institute of Foresters, Nepal

Distribution, population status and genetic diversity of Calamus manan in Sumatra

Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Research and Development Centre for Biotechnology, Indonesia

Studies on rattans of Dakshina, Kannada and Kodagu districts of Karnataka with particular reference to species diversity, density of population, seed viability and germination

Mangalore University, India



Herbarium survey to determine the distribution of certain rattan species in China

Research Institute of Tropical Forestry, Guangzhou, China

Evaluation of ex situ and in situ conservation of rattan germplasm in China

Research Institute of Tropical Forestry, Guangzhou, China

Genetic assessment of three rattan species

Forest Research Institute Malaysia

Identification of patterns of genetic variation among three selected rattans

Universiti Malaya, Malaysia

Distribution and conservation of bamboo and rattan species in northern Thailand

Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Genetic diversity of Calamus species

Royal Forest Department, Thailand

Mapping genetic diversity of rattan in the Western Ghats of India

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), India

Genetic diversity and conservation of certain rattan species in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Western Ghats, South India

Kerala Forest Research Institute, Peechi, India

Estimation of nuclear DNA content of various rattan species

National University of Singapore, Singapore

Distribution, phenology and conditions suitable for seed germination of certain rattans in Viet Nam

Forest Science Institute of Viet Nam

Ecogeographic survey and phenology of rattan in Nepal

Forest Research Centre, Nepal

Development of methods for conservation and sustainable use

Many poor rural people are dependent on NWFPs such as rattan. Conservation efforts should not interfere with extraction and use of the resource for the daily needs and income-generating activities of these people and other forest dwellers. An understanding of forest and forest-fringe dwellers' preferences for rattan extraction, especially when alternative means of livelihood become available, is of significance for sustained efforts to conserve rattan in its natural habitats. Related research activities include assessment of economic gains from extraction of rattan; identification and selection of rattan material that performs well under different environmental conditions and in different ecosystems; and identification and selection of species suitable for cultivation to reduce pressure on naturally occurring stands.


IPGRI has undertaken rattan projects with partners in a number of countries in the region (see Table). Some achievements generated by these activities are highlighted in the following sections.

Prioritization of species for genetic resources conservation

The correct identification of rattans is essential in establishing priorities for conservation and use strategies. A good taxonomy also provides the means for reliable transfer of information and for predicting the properties of rattan (Editor's note: see article by Dransfield in this issue). The taxonomic identification of some of the commercial species is still uncertain. In view of the large number of species and their diverse geographical ranges and ecologies, focus has to be given to the conservation of gene pools of more useful species. This has added relevance in that only a small number of the total species are used or have a commercial value.

In 1994, IPGRI together with INBAR published a list of nine priority species based on available information on utilization, cultivation, products and processing, germplasm and genetic resources, and agro-ecology (Williams and Ramanatha Rao, 1994). Acceding to the needs and feedback of the countries in the region, this priority list was later expanded to include 21 species, shown in the Box (Rao, Ramanatha Rao and Williams, 1998). The priority list is a useful guide for countries seeking to focus their research on rattan.

Priority rattan species for research and development

Calamus manan

Calamus polystachys

Calamus caesius

Calamus warburghii

Calamus trachycoleus

Calamus zeylanicus

Calamus sect. podocephalus

Calamus zollingeri

Calamus andamanicus

Calamus palustris and relatives

Calamus burckianus

Calamus inermis

Calamus erinaceus

Calamus nambariensis

Calamus foxworthyi

Calamus deeratus

Calamus merrillii

Calamus tetradactylus

Calamus nagbettai

Calamus hollrungii and relatives

Calamus ovoideus

Source: Rao, Ramanatha Rao and Williams, 1998.

Assessments and inventories

Studies have been carried out on rattan genetic resources and identification of commercially important species in Bangladesh, China, the Western Ghats in India, Indonesia, the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam (Rao and Ramanatha Rao, 1999; Vivekanandan, Rao and Ramanatha Rao, 1998; Xu et al., 2000). Data collection activities have helped the countries to quantify the depletion of rattan resources and have assisted in identification of the most suitable areas for conservation. For example, the studies in Viet Nam have shown that taxonomic descriptions and species identification are incomplete for most of the resources, especially those in the central and southern regions of the country. Calamus platyacanthus, a large cane similar to C. manan of Southeast Asia, was found to extend from Yunnan Province in China to several provinces in Viet Nam.

Patterns of genetic variation

The genetic diversity of rattan has just begun to generate interest among scientists and researchers. Therefore only a few studies are available on the genetic diversity of rattans within and between populations.

Research on three Calamus species in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India and in Malaysia showed significant phenotypic and genetic variation across species and sites. A study of 13 populations of Calamus palustris from seven provinces in Thailand showed that approximately 18 percent of the total diversity resulted from differences among populations. Investigations of genetic diversity in C. palustris in Thailand revealed great differences in the form and location of the isozymes (a type of genetic marker) in this species. This result indicated that isozyme analysis alone may be sufficient for assessment of intraspecific genetic diversity in C. palustris.

A study in the Western Ghats in India evaluated the status of genetic diversity of rattan in order to construct spatial and temporal patterns of the loss of rattan populations and the genetic resources contained in them. The study identified the presence of 27 species of rattan. Assessment of population genetic variability using Calamus thwaitesii as a pilot species showed a lack of population differentiation. Related research on the identification of genetic markers for gender determination in two dioecious species of Calamus has just been initiated by the National University of Singapore.

Processes that regulate genetic diversity

A study on socio-economic aspects of the loss of rattan resources in Karnataka, India has just been completed. The objectives were to determine the degree of extraction and economic reliance on the resource at the local and state levels, to identify the social and economic factors responsible for the decline in the resource and to examine the social and economic consequences of that decline. The results are now being analysed and the study will produce proposals for mitigating the impacts of extraction and land use changes.

Human resource development

One of the constraints to rattan research is a shortage of available skilled personnel. This has been a concern of IPGRI since it started its rattan research. Over the past few years IPGRI has made efforts to promote and assist in training for conservation and sustainable use of rattan resources. Collaboration with INBAR and other organizations has increased the skills of partners carrying out work in this area. Workshops and courses on taxonomy, conservation, ecology, silviculture and molecular approaches in plant population genetics have helped partners in the region to upgrade their research skills.


Results from the rattan research activities supported by IPGRI in Asia have benefited the countries involved and have also improved national capacity to address the conservation of genetic resources of rattan and national awareness of the importance of doing so. The results obtained are already creating awareness among national research institutes not only in Asia, but also in Africa and Central and South America where rattan species have been introduced.

To ensure the conservation and sustainable use of rattan resources, it is imperative that the practice of unsustainable harvesting should be abandoned and replaced by effective measures of conservation, cultivation and sustainable management which would also help the rural poor in the long term. The work done so far on the identification of available genetic resources in various countries is expected to assist in optimizing the utilization of rattan, including the expansion of the number of species brought under management and cultivation. IPGRI will continue to support studies on the conservation of rattan genetic resources under the four strategic areas identified. It has been and will always be the policy of IPGRI to collaborate with relevant organizations at the national and international levels to bring about more effective sustainable management of rattan resources in order to improve the economic status of rural populations in particular.


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