Deep in the Andean rainforest, the bark from an endangered tree once cured malaria and powered the British Empire. Now, its derivatives are at the centre of a worldwide debate.
By Vittoria Traverso
Unfurling in a carpet of green where the Andes and Amazon basin meet in south-western Peru, Manú National Park is one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet: a lush, 1.5-million hectare Unesco-inscribed nature reserve wrapped in mist, covered in a chaos of vines and largely untouched by humans.
Where to see the rare cinchona tree
Manú National Park, Peru: A haven of biodiversity, the Unesco nature preserve is home to an estimated 5,000 plant species.
Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador: One of the last places to spot Ecuador’s national tree. Hiking through its misty trails, you may also encounter the spectacled bear, one of the Andes’ most emblematic animals.
Cutervo National Park, Peru: Peru’s oldest protected area is famous for its pre-Columbian archaeological remains, 88 species of orchids and for being the last remaining cloud forest in the Peruvian highlands.
Semilla Bendita Botanical Garden, Peru: This botanical garden operated by local environmentalists is home to more than 1,300 native species – including orchids and cinchonas.
But if you hack your way through the rainforest’s dense jungle, cross its rushing rivers and avoid the jaguars and pumas, you may see one of the few remaining specimens of the endangered cinchona officinalis tree. To the untrained eye, the thin, 15m-tall tree may blend into the thicketed maze. But the flowering plant, which is native to the Andean foothills, has inspired many myths and shaped human history for centuries.
“This may not be a well-known tree,” said Nataly Canales, who grew up in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. “Yet, a compound extracted from this plant has saved millions of lives in human history.”
Today, Canales is a biologist at the National Museum of Denmark who is tracing the genetic history of cinchona. As she explained, it was the bark of this rare tree that gave the world quinine, the world’s first anti-malarial drug. And while the discovery of quinine was welcomed by the world with both excitement and suspicion hundreds of years ago, in recent weeks, this tree’s medical derivatives have been at the centre of another heated global debate. Synthetic versions of quinine – such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – have been touted and largely disputed as possible treatments for the novel coronavirus.
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