Spotlight on Science: Tariq Stevart

Tariq Stevart
Associate Scientist, Africa and Madagascar Program

When Tariq Stevart was around 10 years old, his grandfather took him on a trip to Switzerland, where they climbed mountains and discovered alpine flora, in particular orchids. It sparked a lifelong interest for Stevart, who grew up in Belgium and always admired the beautiful orchids of Europe.

“It is a mix between beautiful alpine meadows with many flowers, all open in June July, and so many different orchids, so a huge diversity in terms of species, shape and colors,” he recalls.

Eventually, Stevart made a career out of discovering beautiful flora, and in particular orchids. In his role as an Associate Scientist in the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program, orchid taxonomy is one of his two main research focuses. He also conducts inventories of other plant families for conservation purposes.

Stevart says biology has been an interest for him since a young age. He always enjoyed exploring and his parents encouraged his curiosity. When he got to college, he had several professors who triggered his interest in plants in particular, including one professor who taught him a unique method for growing orchids in the tropics. 

His supervisor eventually offered him the chance to study the orchids of Sao Tomé, a small island in Africa. “I did not hesitate and went there,” Stevart says.

He spent a year and a half studying the ecology and taxonomy of the small island’s orchids as he completed master’s thesis. He did his research hand-on-hand with a local botanist, guide, and assistant, who are all close friends now. The team opened new tracks in the forest to collect orchids and other plant families, creating a living collection which is now the botanic Garden of Bom Successo.

Sao Tomé is also where Stevart described his first orchid species, which he found in the botanical garden his team created. He woke up one morning and went to pick an avocado for breakfast. Next to the avocado, he found a beautiful pink orchid not yet identified by science, which he eventually described as Polystachya biteaui. 

“You can imagine that I was so proud,” Stevart says, noting that he was particularly proud to describe this species with Philipp Cribb, one of the most famous orchid taxonomists at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 2006, he joined the team at the Missouri Botanical Garden, first working at the William L. Brown Center and eventually moving to the Africa & Madagascar team. He knew the Garden’s international reputation, and was particularly interested in the Garden’s program in Gabon. The program manager at that time, Gretchen Walter, was quite famous in Gabon, because she was close with African colleagues and students, and did a lot of training. This is still the Garden’s strategy and a force of the program in Gabon.

Just after he was hired, Stevart went on a collecting trip to Gabon with colleague Miguel Leal. The two wanted to climb the mountains, carrying all their own gear, and soon had nothing to eat. They collected plants in remote places no one had ever visited, making the trip extraordinary. But it was also the most difficult of Stevart’s life, and he lost 22 pounds in one month.

Still, it didn’t stop him from going back. Stevart visits Gabon three to four times a year to study orchids and other plant families. In total, he works in eight countries, seven in West and Central Africa and in Madagascar.

“I think that by doing our work, we are protecting the world flora…and offering a future for the children.”

Tariq Stevart

To study orchid taxonomy, he collects living specimens and grows them in 12 shade houses in operation in the program until the orchid flowers flower. He then uses the flower to identify the orchids, often describing new species. In total, he has described 50 new orchid species. 

He and his team also dedicate much time to Red Listing other plant species to establish what the most threatened species are and then start in situ conservation, and sometimes ex situ conservation when it is necessary. 

One of Stevart’s proudest career achievements is protecting 86,486 acres of unique savannah in Gabon. The area was slated to be turned into a palm plantation, but Stevart and his team were able to obtain authority to preserve them due to their unique plant habitat. 

“This was a mosaic of savannah and gallery forest, with many small ponds,” Stevart explains.

The ponds are a unique habitat in Gabon, and so rare at the scale that they had to protect them all. The savannah is also home to large populations of elephants. The team set up vegetation corridors to allow them to go across concessions, while still protecting the flora.

Going forward, Stevart plans to continue his studies on orchids, and hopes to develop orchid studies in East Africa, where little orchid research has been done recently, and in Madagascar, home to many unique orchid species. He also hopes to expand on the Garden’s international reputation in the area of plant conservation through its work with the IUCN Red List. The Garden officially became a Red List partner in 2020.

That work is essential for the future, Stevart says.

“I think that by doing our work, we are protecting the world flora, including the US [flora], and offering a future for the children.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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