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Leonard Co (1953-2010), Filipino botanist

With much sadness and shock I learned from WWF chair Lory Tan that internationally renowned botanist Leonard Co was killed together with a guide and a forest ranger last Monday, 15 November in a firefight in Leyte between Armed Forces of the Philippines soldiers and Communist guerrillas. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reports it,  Co and his researchers were surveying a forest plot of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) for native Philippine trees and plants especially those that are in danger of extinction, like this Rafflesia flower (the picture I got from Dr Julie Barcelona's blog. Thank you Julie)

The 41 year old Communist insurgency has again claimed another life of the best and brightest of the Philippines. In Leonard Co's case, a bright life that cannot be replaced. For he was one of if not the last of  the classically trained botanists in plant taxonomy and systematics in the Philippines. While one can learn the basics of these disciplines in class, one can only gain expertise in the field, observing the plants themselves.

Leonard Co earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Botany in 2009, more than twenty years after the University of the Philippines (UPh) discontinued conferring the degree. He told me that he should have graduated in the early 70s but he just couldn't pass if I remember right what he said to me, math 11 (or is it Physics?). The Board of Regents waived the requirement due to his important contributions to Philippine botany.  I was a graduation faculty marshal at his commencement.

Later on, I would be involved in planning the landscape of the National Science Complex at UP Diliman, where Leonard and Professor Emeritus Ed Gomez had made it a point to plant the campus with native trees. Some of the seeds and seedlings came from Leonard's field collections and nursed at the UP. Also I would have the chance to discuss with him some important topics on Philippine biodiversity and biogeography. Among rainforest scholars in Brazil whom I met when I was at Louisiana State University he was very well known. The Brazilians asked me how was he. Among the topics we discussed is patterns of endemism among Philippine plants. However, I have to inform the reader that I am no botanist (in fact I cannot teach the subject at all!), I am a zoogeographer. I was in the process of writing a theoretical paper on Philippine biodiversity and I needed his views on the subject.

But instead of discussing about biodiversity we ended up talking about the problems of teaching undergraduate biology! Leonard was concerned that with too much specialization, the classical way in learning about biodiversity (like looking at plants and animals and closely observing them) was now largely lost as molecular biology has become the "sexy" way to look at biodiversity. He told me that as the species disappear, it will much more difficult to learn biodiversity.

I couldn't help but agree. I am at least two student generations from Leornard's generation (having got my BSc in 1988), the generation that made EDSA 1 a reality and the quintessential Martial Law baby. My generation of students trained in the biological sciences still had the classical elements of drawing specimens (digital cameras were not available for mere mortals but only for spy satellites) but were just being introduced to ref sized PCR machines! Thus I could connect with Leonard's concerns. His parting shot was that no one can understand evolution without holding the specimen in your hand! I couldn't but more than agree!

Leonard's works are cited in my biogeography paper which I hope to come out in 2011. When the proofs come out, I will revise the manuscript and dedicate it to his memory.

But the question for me is this, why can't we end the violence in which no one wins and the country becomes poorer, in humanity, material and spirit? We have had EDSA 1, two Aquinos as President and yet there is still fighting that costs the lives of the country's best and brightest.

As for Leonard Co, our discussion reveals while someone like him can never be replaced. First is that UPh no longers offers the botany degree and second, the rainforests are almost gone! In the same way we can't have another Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace (two scientists who were Leonard's inspirations and mine too). However unlike Leonard Co's life, Darwin and Wallace lives ended in peaceful old age.

The loss of this human life is thus magnified and wounds the nation. As the Philippine science community comes to terms with the irreplaceable loss, we have to reflect if the fighting is really worth it.

The young native trees in UPh Diliman are now worthy memorials to a life devoted to conserving Philippine plant biodiversity.


roland said…
Leonard is a friend of mine. Known him in the late 70's when we were climbing with the UP Mountaineers. He is a fun guy to hang out with, we shared numerous bottles of gin (I have to admit though, I drank most of it, almost always)! We shared tents when climbing, I remember the numerous times of always waking up with his glasses under my improvised pillow. One time, on our way down from Pulag, I sprained my ankle and Leonard waited for me as I negotiated the downhill trails gingerly. We had fun... he will always be remembered fondly. Goodbye my dear friend.

Roland Rudio
CVS Caremark
Gail said…
Leonard is an 'institution' among the UP Mountaineers (UPM)as he was one of the very active members with the poineering group of the organization in the late 70s. He would not miss a climb then as UPM did explore and establish trails to mountains which have not been discovered yet for mountaineering/ backpacking and camping activities. He was such a character, so engrossed with his passion in botany, that sometimes we wondered if he was really enjoying the outdoor sport (which could be a test to one's stamina) or just loved exploring all the mossy forests (his favorite) and mountains which were just abundant with unidentified plants, trees, vines, etc. While climbing, he would tell us names of plants, of course, always the scientific names first before the common name... That was Leonard and I remember that one could not stay mad with him for a long time during a trek (sometimes would delay the group or lose some camping supplies he was assigned to carry as he just got too engrossed with his passion)because he was really good soul with so much humor. Oh yes, he was a person whom one would never forget if you have ever met him ... All UPM members to date know him. Not because they had the chance to do treks with him but because his story with UPM has been passed on and on...
Life can be too short indeed. We were going to ask him to identify all our plants, trees, vines, etc in KampoTrexo, Tagaytay but he was just too busy and too far in the Visayas. He was our 'project' in 2011 for the camp site...
We believe that there is always a reason for everything and is definitely part of God's plan... You shall be greatly missed, Leonard and see you soon...

Tatang Gani(UPM79) & Gail Galang
Maria Criselda said…
professor Co, was one of the few remaining high-caliber taxonomists in the Philippines, sayang! iilan na nga lang ang nagmamalasakit in our environment especially in the field of research like what professor Co was doing!justice! this is a tragic loss to our society.. sayang! condolence to the family.
xenon54 said…
Leonard was a classmate of mine in Botany 108 or Plant Taxonomy under Dr. Prescillano M. Zamora, in UP Diliman, in 1974, he was enrolled in BS Botany and I in BS Biology… in our lab class, when I still hadn't known him to be such an expert in plants, I found him very humble and helped everyone to identify our class specimens… it was then that I learned that he started plant collecting as a hobby even prior to high school… he had become an asset to everyone and joined us in our field trips not only as a classmate but also a mentor… I would say that he was the one who inspired me to eventually take up 27 units of botany and plant taxonomy in particular, that Botany has become my dominant major with chemistry as second… Leonard was also instrumental in my having taken a job at the Philippine National Herbarium in the field of Pteridology… Leonard, I agree is a National Treasure who will be lost forever and be missed by everyone in the scientific and academic community… May he receive due justice upon his senseless death…

Cenon V. San Juan
Jason Bruce said…
I remember meeting Dr. Leonard Co and Dr. Dan Lagunzad many years ago and taking our plants samples to their lab. I was always impressed with their work. They're one of a kind and the Philippines best. The loss Dr. Co and also Dr. Lagunzad is sad and tragic news. But they left behind a legacy that will always be remembered. Thanks to them many plants were named and identified and confirmed that the Philippines is indeed rich and a beautiful country. Filipinos will always (and should) be grateful to them. They're one of a kind and Philippines best.
HenryO said…
I do not know Leonard personally but I knew his father in the 70's when he was running a small restaurant at the corner of 7th Ave., Caloocan City. At that time and up to the present, I still consider his Misua Guisado to be the best in town.
During one of our conversations, I happen to know that he has a son studying Botany at UP and spent most the time gathering specimens in outlying areas. Even in those early years, I was convinced that that young man is going to succeed in his field of study.
Today, I felt sorry for what caused his demise - a government incapable of maintaining a system of peace and order for its people.

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