Rafflesias are a wonder of nature and are considered the largest and smelliest flowers in the world. The iconic plants, which only occur in the jungles of Southeast Asia and still puzzle experts today, are in great danger: “All 42 known species are now seriously threatened,” says an international study led by the University of Oxford, published in the specialist magazine ” Plants People Planet” is published. However, so far only a single species is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species.

The authors, however, classify 25 Rafflesia species as “critically endangered,” 15 as “endangered,” and two as “endangered.” The main reason is the loss of their natural habitat. According to the study, many of the remaining populations are limited to a few individuals located in unprotected areas. At the same time, attempts to grow rafflesias in botanical gardens have so far had little success.

Rafflesias are parasitic plants. With their smell of rotting flesh, they attract flies for pollination – a clever way to ensure survival. At the same time, the plant lacks almost all of the characteristics of a “normal” flower: it has no leaves, no stem and no root, but rather anchors itself to its host plant as a parasite. These are usually liana or vine plants. Only the flowers are well developed and huge: some are a meter in diameter. But the colossal splendor is short-lived. The thick, leathery flowers wilt after just three to seven days.

Researchers call for urgent action plan

The record flowers have existed for millions of years. The distribution area extends from Thailand via the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia. Researchers are calling them a miracle of evolution – as they continue to try to unravel their secrets.

Botanists still regularly describe new Rafflesia species. “But we estimate that at least 67 percent of known habitats are outside protected areas, increasing their vulnerability,” the study says. Previously unknown species are probably extinct before they are even discovered.

The authors propose an urgent action plan and coordinated action by governments, researchers and conservation organizations. The focus must be on protecting the habitats of the most threatened populations. Nowhere are rainforests disappearing faster than in Southeast Asia – and many Rafflesias lived in dangerous proximity to growing human settlements.

But it is also important to better research the entire group of plants and develop new methods to propagate them outside of their natural habitat. The botanists are convinced that ecotourism initiatives could also help. Financial support and training for the local population is an effective way to increase awareness of rafflesias and their protection.