'Plant-jackers' are back in South Africa 25 October 2011 A PAIR of German botanists accused of 'hi-jacking' hundreds of precious plants from South African herbariums is in the Eastern Cape – hoping for a permit to collect plants. Prof Dietrich Mueller-Doblies told The Herald yesterday (October 24, 2011) he and his wife Dr Ute Mueller-Doblies were driving up through the Eastern Cape from the Western Cape, on their way to the Fish River Valley to look for “a certain Albuca“.
Albuca is a bulbous plant of the kind that the MDs – as they are famous and infamously known in botanical circles around the world – have carved their research careers.
The professor said he applied on Tuesday last week by e-mail from Stellenbosch to the Eastern Cape environment office in East London, for a permit to collect four Albuca specimens. Their aim is to get to get accommodation in the Fish River area, and to wait there for the permit to come through.
In the meantime, however, local herbarium curators have got wind of their presence, and are vigorously opposing their application, and spotlighting their previous conduct.
Dr Tony Dold, curator of the Selma Schonland Herbarium in Grahamstown, said he was concerned and angry about the matter.
If they get a permit it will be just giving them permission to carry on hi-jacking us.”
In 1979, the Selmar Schonland loaned to the MDs a collection of more than 300 Hyacinthaceae, a family of bulbous plants present elsewhere in the world but best represented in South Africa. International herbarium protocol stipulates that loans are made for a period of 12 months but most of them, including a number of key isotypes, have never been returned.
Dold said his “hijacking” accusation relates to these isotypes, the specimen “blueprints”.
“There is only ever one isotype for a species. My colleague and I are currently working on the Hyacinthaceae, but I am completely hamstrung because I am unable to study the isotypes – because they are sitting in Berlin.
“In fact, no-one else has been able to work on this poorly understood plant group for 30 years, which seems to be the MD’s intention. This kind of behaviour is unethical, disrespectful and unacceptable.”
Researching these plants is vital because it helps to understand their biology better, and thereby to protect them in the wild, he said.
“There are some common plants in the family and some incredibly rare ones. We need to get a handle on each of them because that will help us conserve them. But we need our collection and especially our isotypes back.”
Dold said he tackled the matter shortly after joining the herbarium, in 1991.
“I have written many letters and e-mails and have even telephoned the MDs pleading for the return of our specimens. Most of these have been ignored.”
Another disturbing aspect of the matter is that, in terms of accepted plant research protocol, loans are only ever made from one institution to another. The MDs are based at the Technische Universitat in Berlin. But all the collections, fragile dried specimens mounted on sheets of paper, are now being kept at their home. This has been confirmed by the university, Dold said.
Copies of letters in The Herald’s possession, received by Dold in late 2003 from Dietrich Mueller-Doblies, appear disdainful and arrogant.
Referring to Dold’s angry requests, he says, “I like your enthusiasm and picturesque exaggerations very much” – and then goes on to admit, “it is true that you asked several times in the last 10 years for the return of your specimens, and it is also true that 320 specimens are still outstanding.”
Through the years, while ignoring the irate calls from Dold and his colleagues at South Africa’s other herbaria, the MD’s have written prolifically about their research on South Africa’s bulbous plants. According to international protocol, they have noted the herbariums where each isotype is kept of the plant they are referring to, Dold noted.
“Yet, they have not deposited these isotypes or any of their apparently more than 100000 South African specimens back in those herbariums.”
Until the loan from Selmar Schonland has been returned in full, the Mueller-Doblies will not be allowed into that herbarium, he vowed.
“I hope that other herbaria will support us in doing the same. I ask that permit authorities support us by rejecting collecting permit applications from these people. I also suggest caution to landowners and reserve managers in allowing access. Please let us stand together against this piracy”.
Dr Koos Roux of Sanbi, who is also the curator of Compton Herbarium in Kirstenbosch, confirmed that the institute had had to seek legal aid, in 1998, to get their plants back from the MDs.
“It involved this herbarium and the national herbarium in Pretoria. We had to hire a lawyer who contacted a lawyer in Germany and eventually they were forced to give them back. But in fact there are about 20 isotypes that we have never got back.
“The action cost us R30-40000 but in the end we were just so happy to get them back and this curse off our backs.”
Besides the MD’s assault on the Sanbi and Selmar Schonland collections, UCT’s Bolus Herbarium also suffered the same, he noted.
“And I know that their collection has never been returned.
“The Mueller-Doblies are certainly persona non grata in this herbarium and I think the same applies to all the others in the country as well.”
The East London office of the Eastern Cape environment department could not be reached for comment.
However, Dr Ernst Baard, the head of scientific services at CapeNature, the Western Cape environment department, confirmed that the Mueller-Doblies have submitted a collection permit application to his department.
“We are consulting widely on the application. We are aware of the reports and concerns from the herbaria and we cannot ignore those.
“Furthermore if it is correct that Sanbi did have to take legal action against these applicants, Sanbi is a government agency so, in the interests of inter-departmental co-operation, we would have to take that into account.”
Prof Mueller-Doblies said it was not correct that they had deliberately not returned borrowed collections.
“We have returned most and we are still returning some of them.”
He said he and his wife had been to South Africa 25 times and were fascinated by the plant life here.
“We want to come back, so we will be abiding by the conditions which says you need a permit to collect,” he said.
“If we do not get a permit for Fish River, we will drive straight on to Swaziland.”