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 â€“ a staggering 20 456 species. The assessment has been published in a book entitled the Red List of South African Plants. It was appropriately launched by SANBI in Cape Town on Earth Day â€“ 22 April 2010.
Funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ development branch Norad, the assessment uses the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List system. This is an internationally endorsed scientific approach to assessing the risks of extinction to species.
Says Domitilla Raimondo, SANBI Threatened Plants Programme Manager and lead author of the South African list: ‘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.â€
Emphasising the significance of South Africa’s floral diversity and underscoring the global significance of this assessment, Craig Hilton-Taylor head of the IUCN Red List programme based in Cambridge England explains: ‘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.â€
Erica jasminiflora – Critically Endangered, on the brink of extinction – photo Ismail Ebrahim
Red List reveals status of threatened South Africa’s plant species
- 2 577 of South Africa’s wild plant species, or 13%, are threatened â€“ these are species in danger of extinction.
- A further 2 232 plant species are listed under other categories of conservation concern. This brings the proportion of the South African flora that we urgently need to conserve to 24%, or one in every four species.
- The proportion of threatened species in South Africa is much higher than other mega-diverse countries such as Australia and Brazil. South Africa’s higher proportion of threatened species is due to the fact that when only selective assessments are done, many threatened species can be overlooked. 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 in this list. As the previous Red List was produced in 1996 this shows that South Africa is losing plant species at a rapid rate.
Red List exposes status of Medicinal Plants
The trade in medicinal plant species plays an important role in contributing to livelihoods of South Africans. It has been estimated that there are 27 million indigenous medicine consumers in South Africa with a large supporting industry. 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.
Red List offers insight into why SA’s wild plant species are threatened
- Loss of natural habitat is the most significant 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.
- The second largest threat is habitat degradation. Overgrazing by livestock is the main cause of habitat degradation, followed closely by incorrect fire regimes.
- 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.
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.
How can you help?
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. To join CREW write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 differenceâ€.
Where can you find the Red List?
The publication (Red List of South African Plants 2009 – Strelitzia 25) is available at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s bookshop. It can also be purchased from the SANBI online bookshop.