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Agence France-Presse released an article last week describing the way the people in one Semai village protect the rare Rafflesia plants so they can show them to ecotourists. The Semai living in the community of Ulu Geroh, in northern Perak state, have been featured in the news in 2005 and again in 2006 for their successful ecotourism business. Villagers were trained by the Malaysian Nature Society, with help from the government of the state, to be successful guides for tourists who want to see the rare flowers. Evidently their business continues to blossom.

Semai guides take visitors, who stay at a nearby nature lodge, along forest trails to see the flowers, which are only open for a few days before they fade, turn black, and rot. The guides will also take tourists to places where they may see the rare Rajah Brooke Birdwing butterflies, and to a nearby waterfall.

Long Kadak, a 51 year old woman, told the reporter that the Semai used to pick the Rafflesia buds and sell them to traders. They were used for medicinal preparations. “We took many, many sackfuls,” she said. But they don’t take any now because they realize they can make far more money by showing the flowers to tourists. When the Semai guides take their visitors to see the Rafflesia blossoms, they do not allow anyone to trample or harm the plants.

The attraction of the flowers is that they are the largest blossoms in the world. Some scientists disagree on the number of Rafflesia species, but most agree that there are 24 of them. The flowers of some of the species may measure over a meter across. Found in deep forest environments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, the Rafflesias are fragile parasites, without vines or leaves of their own, that grow on certain other plants. They are sometimes referred to as “corpse flowers” because, for a very short time, they emit strong, rotting-flesh, odors. The plants use the smell to attract carrion flies as pollinators. The blooms may be colored a mottled orange, pink, or red, depending on the species.

Other indigenous people in Southeast Asia have also been persuaded to preserve their nearby Rafflesia plants to show to tourists, but according to Abdul Latiff Mohamad, an expert on the subject, the Semai tourism project at Ulu Geroh is probably the most successful.