Sarawak is exceedingly rich in natural resources, particularly the great forests of tropical hardwoods, oil, spectacular landscapes and a highly diversified flora. Orchids are coming the most enchanting and beautiful of the floral components. These have attracted scientists, naturalists and horticulturists since The first scientific orchid collections were made by Hugh Low in 1845. The great Italian naturalists Odoardo Beccari spent more than two years in Sarawak from 1865 to 1868, making many important plant collections including some 257 orchid collections of 190 species. Since that time more than 7000 permanently preserved specimens have accumulated in the world’s herbaria. These present over 1000 species in 120 genera, and provide the basis for enumerating all presently known orchid species occurring naturally in the state.
Trough resources of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation of the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Sarawak Forestry Department, together with the collections in some 30 other institutions in 16 countries, it has been possible to assemble in a single database the information for most of the orchid collections made in Sarawak by more than 200 plant collectors over the last 150 years. This important database has been used to document the distribution of all orchids in Sarawak, including data about which species are known only from the state, which ones are threatened or in danger of extinction, and which localities have the greatest concentrations of species.
The first enumeration of the orchids of Borneo was published in 1896 by H. N. Ridley, who listed only only 160 taxa from Sarawak. Oakes Ames in 1920 recognized 290 species from the state. In 1994 J. J. Wood and P. J. Cribb published a checklist of the orchids of Borneo, in which 676 taxa where reported for Sarawak. The present study has added additional records for the state, bringing the total of currently known taxa to 1019.
Although many orchid collections are now available for Sarawak, the orchid flora of the state still cannot be considered well known, particularly because 306 fully determined taxa have been collected only once; only 51 taxa are represented by more than 15 collections. About 82% of the species are epiphytic and 21% terrestrial (some species are both epiphytic and terrestrial). Among the taxa included in the enumeration are 127 known only from Sarawak; 302 additional taxa have been found only in Borneo. Application of the IUCN Red List categories and criteria for orchids known only from Sarawak resulted in the classification of 74 taxa as critically endangered, 39 as endangered, and 13 as vulnerable.
In recent years the diversity of orchids has been reduced by logging, which initially removes a portion of the forest cover, opens the canopy, lowers the humidity and increases light levels. Secondary effects include road construction that facilitates other types of exploitation and increases susceptibility of logged areas to forest fires. Most of Sarawak has now been heavily logged, the principal primary forests remaining mainly in National Parks. Kuching is the locality from which the greatest number of orchid taxa (209) have been collected. Because of the intense and extensive development of this area over the past 50 years, most of these species probably are now extirpated. Knowledge of the species and the habitats in which they occur hopefully will provide a basis for protection and conservation of the orchids, which constitute a particularly precious component of Sarawak’s biological heritage.