Dr Engkik Soepadmo was born on 13 March 1937 in Kartosuro, Surakarta, Central Java, Indonesia. He showed a keen interest in ecology from an early age. Being born and brought up in a kampung environment, it was a natural thing to do for children like myself to be curious, observant and become well acquainted with all sorts of trees and other plants growing around our houses, in the orchards, along narrow and winding streets and river banks, and sprawling paddy fields and vegetable gardens,“ he says.
He received his early education at the Secondary School in Solo. Following his graduation from High School in 1955, Dr Soepadmo was selected as one of 30 successful candidates to undergo intensive undergraduate training at the College of Biology in Bogor. He graduated from the College of Biology in 1959 with a Bachelor Degree in Taxonomic Botany. “It was from the beginning of my college education in Bogor that I was drilled by my lecturers and mentors on the importance and significance of understanding plant diversity, structure and functioning as well as conservation of the forest ecosystem in maintaining and sustaining ecological balance of human environment,” he adds.
Following a stint as a junior botanist at the Herbarium Bogoriense in Bogor, Dr Soepadmo was offered a Colombo Plan Fellowship to do postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, where he obtained his PhD in July 1966. This was followed by a two year research fellowship from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
Dr Soepadmo first came to Malaysia in 1968 when he was appointed as a lecturer in Tropical Botany at the University of Malaya. He later became an Associate Professor at the Department of Botany in 1975. Soon after, he was appointed as the Professor of Ecology at the same University. “After considering all aspects of my future, I became thoroughly convinced that Malaysia was the right place to further my academic career,” he says. During his tenure at the University of Malaya, Dr Soepadmo developed, managed and implemented various basic and applied botanical and ecological courses relevant to the training and development of young scientists capable of tackling various scientific and managerial issues pertinent to the conservation and sustainable use of tropical forest biological resources.
Dr Soepadmo’s main interest and research activity over the past 48 years (1963-2011) has focused on species diversity, complex structure and ecological functioning of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Through detailed botanical and ecological studies of selected tree species (trees being the major component of tropical rainforests) complemented with extensive field work, he has shown that the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia plays a vital role in the maintenance of ecological balance and environment stability of its surrounding areas.
Dr Soepadmo has published more than 100 papers in internationally refereed journals, books and research materials. His earlier major contributions in the survey and documentation of tree species diversity in Southeast Asia are in the form of monographs of the Fagaceae (oak and chestnut family) and Ulmaceae (elm family), published in the Flora Malesiana Ser. 1, volume 7, 2 (1972) and 8, 2 (1977), respectively. The seven volumes of the Tree Flora of Sabah and Sarawak (1995–2011) that he edited and authored contain detailed botanical and ecological accounts of 2,165 tree species native to Sabah and Sarawak, among which 946 are endemic and 267 new to science. In his botanical and floristic work, Dr Soepadmo has so far discovered, described and documented 56 species of tropical trees new to science. He has also edited and contributed towards the compilation and publication of “The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Plants”
, published by The Archipelago Press in 1998.
Dr Soepadmo has also been actively involved in the negotiation, formulation, planning and establishment of regional and international collaborative research and training programmes with well-established overseas botanical and other research institutions having interest in tropical forest biodiversity. He has also contributed scientific data pertaining to the botany, ecology and conservation status of Malaysian aromatic, medicinal, ornamental, timber and wild fruit tree species.
The result of his collaborative research project on nectar-feeding bats has highlighted and established the mutual interdependence and close link between the bats and a number of trees growing in the mixed dipterocarp forest, mangrove forest, limestone hills (dark caves) and fruit orchard in villages. The link of the bats, mangroves and the fireflies have also been used by his colleague at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) to detect and mitigate the decline of the firefly colony due to the pollution of Sungai Selangor which was causing the death of beremban
trees in Kuala Selangor. Beremban
trees are not only the firefly colony’s mating grounds but also the feeding grounds of the nectar-feeding bats.
In recognising his contribution towards enhancing our knowledge of the Flora and Plant Biodiversity of the Southeast Asia region, his peers have named six species of plants after him:
- Actinodaphne soepadmoi Julia (Lauraceae)
- Aglaia soepadmoi C.M. Pannell (Meliaceae)
- Cinnamomum soepadmoi Kostermans (Lauraceae)
- Ficus soepadmoi Kochummen (Moraceae)
- Syzygium soepadmoi P.S. Ashton (Myrtaceae)
- Vatica soepadmoi P.S. Ashton (Dipterocarpaceae)
As the Coordinator and Chief Editor of the Tree Flora of Sabah and Sarawak Project at FRIM, Dr Soepadmo has been directly involved in guiding and upgrading the research and managerial capability of more than 30 young Malaysian research officers attached to FRIM, Forest Department of Sabah, and Forest Department of Sarawak. The Tree Flora of Sabah and Sarawak Project was judged as the best research project by the FRIM Board in 1996 and 2007.
In 2009, Dr Soepadmo was nominated by FRIM as a candidate for the prestigious Blue Planet Prize which recognises outstanding efforts in scientific research or applications of science that contribute to solving global environmental problems. At the same time, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) awarded Dr Soepadmo Honorary Life Membership to recognise outstanding individuals for their significant and meaningful contribution to the Malaysian Nature Society and their study of Malaysia’s natural heritage.
Dr Soepadmo has also made significant contribution towards the research collaboration, establishment, management and implementation of a number of key projects including:
- The Malaysian International Biological Programme (IBP) for the study of tropical rainforest at the Pasoh FR, Negeri Sembilan involving over 70 Malaysian, Japanese and British scientists (1970–1974);
- Research and training collaboration on the reproductive biology and population dynamics of tropical forest trees between scientists of the University of Malaya, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK and the Harvard University, USA (1975–1985);
- Mangrove Research and Management Project in Southeast Asia involving scientists from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia (1976–1980);
- Network of long-term ecological research on population dynamics of tropical rainforest between scientists from Malaysia, Japan, United Kingdom and USA (1978–1993);
- Botanical Inventory of Southeast Asian (Malesian) Floras involving botanists from Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe and USA (1966–Present).
Dr Soepadmo has also been actively involved in the establishment of Protected Forest Areas in Malaysia including:
- 1970–1985: 50 hectares Ecological Plots for long-term studies at Pasoh FR (Peninsular Malaysia) and Lambir NP (Sarawak), (as a member of the International Selection Panel and a leader of initial botanical explorations);
- 1985–1986 & 1989–1990: The Endau-Rompin State Parks in Johor and Pahang (as researcher and contributor of scientific papers);
- 1993–1994: The Royal Belum State Park in Perak (Peninsular Malaysia; as scientific expedition leader and co-editor of scientific publications);
- 1994–1995: The Bukit Tawai Protection Forest Reserve (Sabah; as researcher and leader of botanical expedition);
- 1997–2000: The Lanjak-Entimau/Betung Kerihun Transboundary Conservation Area (Malaysia-Indonesia; as researcher and co-editor of scientific publications);
- 2007–Present: Pulong Tau NP (Sarawak; as leader and/or advisor of botanical exploration).
Dr Soepadmo is the foremost authority on Malaysia’s forest plant diversity. His research plays an important role in the future of Malaysia’s rich plant heritage and its dependence on the delicate balance between conservation and the sustainable exploitation and management of forest resources.
He has emphasised that enormous amount of concerted endeavor by all concerned in the form of multi-/inter-disciplinary basic and applied scientific research, development of indigenous expertise, conservation and wise usage of biological resources, are of paramount importance to optimally harvest the goods and services offered by the tropical forests of the region.
Dr Soepadmo is an outstanding botanist and ecologist who has made significant contribution to the research and conservation of Malaysia’s forest plant diversity. His wide-ranging work has had significant impact on Malaysia and Malaysians and truly embodies the Spirit of Merdeka.