Some forty years back, a palm-like plant in Birbhum district of West Bengal, India, began flowering. Its terminal panicle flowers, blooming massively atop the tall trunk, were yellowish white and looked like a deer's antlers.
Local Santal community took the mystic flowering for a bad omen, and chopped it down in 1979.
The tree, locally known as Talipalm (Corypha taliera), was the last member of its species. Thereby, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in 1998, declared Talipalm as 'Extinct in Wild'.
But it was later discovered that the unlucky tree had another counterpart left at the premises of Dhaka University, which also died in 2012. This should have been the end of the Talipalm. But that was not to be. Narrowly escaping extinction, more than 200 Talipalms are now standing across Bangladesh.
Akhtaruzzaman Chowdhury, a little-known chemistry teacher from a downtown college in Dhaka, stood between the tree and its extinction. But saving a tree from extinction was not an easy task, especially in the case of Talipalm, a tree with a peculiar lifecycle: It blossoms once in a century, and then dies.
In 2001, three years after the formal declaration of extinction, Shymal Kumar Basu, a West Bengal-based botanist, visited Dhaka University. As he was walking round the university campus, he, all of a sudden, encountered a palm-like tree at the residence of one of the university officials. Mr. Basu instantly, and unmistakably, recognised it as a Talipalm tree.
Seven years later in 2008, Akhtaruzzaman Chowdhury, a chemistry teacher, was doing his thesis at Dhaka University on chemical and biological investigation of Talipalm. His research work consisted a part towards his MPhil degree under the
Rajshahi University of Engineering and Technology (RUET), his supervisors being Ashraful Alam, a professor of chemistry at the RUET, and Professor Abdur Rashid, the dean of the department of pharmacy at the DU.
Akhtaruzzaman had read Charaka Samhita, a treatise on Ayurveda written some time in 200 B.C. In one of its pages, the book said, 'Your herbs will come from the place you are born.'
"My mother Ayesha Khatun used to provide local people with traditional medicines. Since my childhood, herbs attracted my attention," recalled Professor Akhter.
So, naturally, he was into studying the lifecycle of Talipalm to check on his hypothesis that every monocarpic plant (plants that only once in their lifetime flower; shed seed; and die) contains high quality herbal components.
In a sheer coincidence, in September 2008, Akhtar noticed that the infinitely lonely Talipalm tree on the DU Pro-Vice Chancellor's residence premises started flowering. The tree had reached the final stage of its one hundred year's life.
Akhtar kept observing the plant, almost every week.
"In December 2008, the flowers in the tree were in full bloom, and began fruiting from January next year. The fruits took nearly one year to ripe, and finally fell off the tree in January 2010," Akhtar says.
This made the chemistry teacher act like a botanist. He collected the seeds by removing the pericarp carefully, and then sown them in two different seedbeds, one in the 'medicinal plant garden' of the DU's Faculty of Pharmacy and the other in 13/C Azimpur Government Officers' Quarter premises, where Akhtar lived.
Within the next two to three months, seedlings grew with root. Out of 500 seeds sown in the seedbeds, 457 germinated.
During the entire length of 2011, Akhtar pursued high government officials for planting saplings of Talipalm. In consequence of his effort, Prime minister Sheikh Hasina planted a sapling Talipalm on Jessore Education Board School and College premises, while the then Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid planted another on National Academy for Educational Management premises in Dhaka. Visiting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also planted a Talipalm in Moulavibazar district.
Since 2011, Akhtar assisted Talipalm plantation in at least 51 districts; and he has plans to spread the species over and across the rest of the country.
The teacher, now teaching science at the Government Bangla College, Dhaka, often takes saplings of Talipalm with his on his visits to distant places.
As the 'secretary general' of Endangered Plants and Animals Conservation Foundation, he volunteers protecting other endangered plant species, as well.
A hope for non-immune patients
During the colonial period, a Scottish botanist and the East India Company-deployed superintendent of Calcutta Botanical Garden, William Roxburgh discovered Corypha taliera or Talipalm as a member of Arecaceae family. It is believed that
Roxburgh had done the taxonomy before he retired from the job in 1813.
"As the lone Talipalm began flowering in 2008, we figured out that the tree was planted exactly when Robert Louis Proudlock, the then adviser to the government of East Bengal-Assam, had launched a tree plantation initiative across Ramna, Dhaka, in 1909," Akhtar says.
A mature Talipalm grows up to 10 meters with its largest palmate leaves, stretching up to 6 meters.
Akhtar's conservation effort has saved the plant species from extinction. Besides, his biological investigation on Talipalm has contributed towards research involving the search for crucial medicines to cure non-immune disease like cancer.
"My investigations have come up with nine chemical compounds, including Betulinic acid, that researches claim can resist colon cancer," said Akhtar. Further research on Talipalm's medicinal importance is going on in Germany and United States.
Hundred Talipalm seeds are now preserved in a gene bank for the next germination project.
"The newly planted Talipalms would start flowering at the beginning of the year 2100. Approximately one thousand seeds can be produced from a single tree. I hope, the ongoing conservation initiatives would help with the stocking of necessary chemical compounds, crucial for nonimmune diseases," Akhtar concludes.