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HUGE, SMELLY FLOWER MAY FACE EXTINCTION

Cursed with a smell like rotten meat and labelled the Stinking Corpse Lily, the world's largest flower is under threat from man.

Development and logging in the jungles of Southeast Asia are endangering the survival of the foul-scented blooms, which can measure more than three feet across.Nature could not have devised a more precarious existence for the parasitic flower - botanical name Rafflesia arnoldii - which attaches itself to vines, flowers rarely and needs rodents to propagate seeds from its fruit.

The plant has a flower with five leathery spotted petals ranging from dull yellow to red.

Its delicate life cycle is under siege by the bulldozers that are razing its habitat and the local residents who collect its fruit for use in medicine or as an aphrodisiac, scientists say.

They say one of the 14 species of the flower, found only in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, has become extinct since the 1960s, while chances for the rest are fading.

Jamili Nais, ecology director of Kinabalu Park on Borneo Island, said seeds of the Rafflesia germinate for six to eight months into a thumb-size bud on the Lancedarium vine. They take another nine to 18 months to mature, by which time the plant looks like a brown cabbage.

The Rafflesia then blooms for four to seven days. A male and female plant must bloom side by side for the same period, said Jamili.

The offensive smell attracts flies, which help pollinate the flowers.

"The chances of a male and female Rafflesia blooming side by side and (being) pollinated successfully are very slim," said Jamili.

The largest recorded flower, found in Indonesia, measured 42 inches. Malaysian officials found Sabah's largest specimen, measuring 36 inches, last year.

The cycle of life, which lasts up to two years, ends when the flower withers after less than a week's bloom, leaving a semi-elliptical fruit that looks like half a football and contains thousands of seeds.

As squirrels and rodents feed on the fruit, the tiny seeds stick to them and propagate as the animals scurry along the vine.

The flower is named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the governor of the British East India Company's operations in Sumatra, who founded Singapore in 1819.

According to an 1820 account, Raffles and a naturalist friend, Joseph Arnold, were strolling in Sumatra in 1818 when a guide told Arnold to come and see "a flower, very large, beautiful, wonderful."

Arnold hacked off the specimen and took it to Raffles, who called it the "largest and most magnificent flower." A specimen was sent to London where it was identified as a new species and named "Rafflesia arnoldii" after the two men.

"It had precisely the smell of tainted beef," Arnold said in a letter.

One species in peninsular Malaysia, the scandenberghia, is nearly extinct because locals collect the fruit to use in an aphrodisiac or a medicine to help women recover from childbirth.

While the inhabitants of Borneo do not eat the fruit, the Rafflesia is threatened by loggers who have cut away vast tracts of natural forest in the timber-rich state, Jamili said.

"The greatest threat is logging, which destroys the vine on which the plant survives," he said. "The Rafflesia is rare, vulnerable and threatened. The entire species might be wiped out if nothing is done."

He said he once found a colony of Rafflesia buds in a timber concession area and asked the logging company to leave the vines untouched. "When we came back after a few months everything was gone - timber, vine and Rafflesia."

Jamili said he had asked the government to give allowances to villagers who have Rafflesia on their land and to pay them for alerting and guiding rangers to each bloom.

Jamili said he hoped to charge tourists to view it to help pay for the conservation of the flower.

Meanwhile, rangers in Kinabalu Park are camouflaging each bloom. But they showed a recent visitor a magnificent 28-inch specimen, stinking and surrounded by flies.