In one of the continent’s largest collaborative conservation projects to date, South Africa has become the first of the world’s mega-diverse countries to fully assess the status of its entire flora – a staggering 20 456 species.
The assessment was published in a book entitled the Red List of South African Plants, which was launched at Kirstenbosch, Cape Town on Earth Day by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
This great work was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ development branch Norad. It uses the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List system – an internationally endorsed scientific approach to assessing the risks of extinction to species.
Mega-diverse country with species richness
‘South Africa is one of the world’s mega-diverse countries in terms of its species richness and high levels of endemism. South Africa not only contains one of the world’s six floral kingdoms, but three of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are located mainly within its borders,’ said Domitilla Raimondo, SANBI Threatened Plants Programme Manager and lead author of the South African list.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN Red List program based in Cambridge England explained the significance of South Africa’s floral diversity and underscored the global significance of this assessment.
‘The Red List of South African Plants is a landmark publication that doubles the number of plants on the IUCN’s Global Red List. Compiling this list has been an enormous multi-partner conservation project. More than 200 professionals as well as members of the public have contributed.’
We are losing plants at a rapid pace
The publication sheds light on several previously unanswered questions:
- 2 577 of South Africa’s wild plant species, or 13%, are threatened – these are species in danger of extinction.
- South Africa urgently needs to conserve 24% or one in every 4 plant species.
- 2 232 plant species are listed under other categories of conservation concern
- The proportion of threatened species in South Africa is much higher than other mega-diverse countries such as Australia and Brazil.
- While their assessments have not been as comprehensive they estimate only 6% and 3% of plants as threatened respectively.
- South Africa’s higher proportion of threatened species is due to the fact that many threatened species can be overlooked, when only selective assessments are done
- With the new Red List of South African plants we have, for the first time, a complete picture of the extent of threat to our flora.
- South Africa has 40 plant species that are extinct, and a further 76 are probably extinct (listed as Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct).
- Extensive field surveys of the last remaining pieces of natural habitat of all Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct species are required before they can be officially listed as extinct.
- 5 species have been listed as extinct for the first time on this list.
- As the previous Red List was produced in 1996 this shows that South Africa is losing plant species at a rapid rate.
Most medicinal plants not threatened
The trade in medicinal plant species plays an important role in contributing to livelihoods of South Africans. With this in mind, the assessment of these plants is of unique economic significance.
There are an estimated 27 million indigenous medicine consumers in South Africa, with a large supporting industry. The trade in traditional medicines forms part of a multimillion-rand ‘hidden economy’ in southern Africa.
The Red List exposes the status of these plants at a national level:
- Less than 20% of South Africa’s 322 heavily traded medicinal plant species are threatened with extinction.
- The majority of medicinal plants that have been assessed on the Red List are considered not threatened and have the status Least Concern.
Looking ahead, SANBI has committed to working with conservation agencies to help conserve the handful of medicinal plant species that are highly threatened due to overharvesting.
Habitat loss is the big cause
In order to fully understand how to mitigate loss of species it is important to understand why South Africa’s wild plant species are threatened?
1) Loss of natural habitat is the most significant threat, affecting twice as many species as any other threat.
- 43 plant species have gone extinct or are listed as possibly extinct due to crop cultivation and 26 due to urban development.
- Over the past decade there has been a tendency to low density urban sprawl and coastal ribbon development, both which have caused significant habitat loss to restricted plant species.
- Most of South Africa’s large cities are situated in zones of high plant endemism, making it all the more important to encourage dense urban development rather than urban sprawl, while protecting key natural sites as part of urban open space systems.
2) The second largest threat is habitat degradation. Overgrazing by livestock is the main cause of habitat degradation, followed closely by incorrect fire regimes.
3) Encroachment by invasive alien plants is the third most severe threat and has become more severe in the past decade. This trend can be expected to continue.
Fynbos Biome contains the most threatened species
The Fynbos Biome – which falls mainly within the Western Cape province – contains the highest concentration of the country’s threatened species (67%) and species of conservation concern (64%). Over the past decade areas under crop cultivation have expanded in the Sandveld and Cedarberg regions mainly for the cultivation of rooibos tea and potatoes. Expansion of the wine industry has led to large areas of natural vegetation being ploughed in the Upper Breede River Valley and on the Agulhas plain.
SANBI and its partner conservation agencies are working with industry and agriculture to conserve threatened plant species, for example:
- SANBI’s grassland programme is working with forestry companies to conserve, via stewardship contracts, remnants of natural grasslands that remain between plantations. These remnants are often the only remaining habitat for restricted threatened grassland plants.
- The wine industry is having an enormous impact on plant species in the Fynbos region. The Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, a collaboration between the conservation sector and the wine industry, aims to minimize further loss of threatened natural habitat, and contribute to sustainable wine producing practices, through the adoption of biodiversity guidelines by the South African wine industry. Producers and growers are encouraged to conserve their remaining natural areas via Cape Nature’s Stewardship Programme. In return they are assisted with branding their wine as Biodiversity friendly.
- In the Cederberg area, the Rooibos Biodiversity Initiative (RBI), a co-operative partnership between Cape Nature and the South African Rooibos Council (SARC), is promoting the value and conservation of biodiversity, and highlighting the long-term production and economic sustainability that can be gained from good land use practice amongst rooibos producers.
Why a Red List?
- Red Lists inform national, provincial and municipal conservation plans.
- They inform interested parties on trends in biodiversity management and so influence policy and decision making.
- Red Lists can help streamline decision making about the location of urban and agricultural development.
The publication is available at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s bookshop. There is a limited print edition of only 1000 copies. More information on SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme and the plant Red List is available at SANBI.
For those who want to take action and play their part, SANBI involves members of the public in threatened plant conservation. The Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers programme (CREW) is an extensive civil society network. CREW volunteers gather information on the status of threatened plant populations in the wild and provide valuable data for monitoring and conservation purposes. Groups of volunteers engage local municipalities in conservation projects to conserve critically sites for threatened species.
Your decisions at the till-point also make a difference. Says Raimondo: ‘We encourage people to be conscious about the impact of their purchases, and to favour products with a conservation ethic. The bottle of wine you choose can make a difference.’