Albion Monitor /News

One Out of Eight Plant Species May Vanish

by Danielle Knight

Probably much higher
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- One out of every eight plant species throughout the world is now at risk of extinction, according to a new scientific survey.

A 20-year joint study by scientists, museums, botanical gardens, and conservation organizations, showed that habitat destruction and introduction of non-native species have caused approximately 12.5 percent of the world's plants to now be so rare they could easily disappear.

The ongoing crisis meant that nearly 34,000 species of ferns, conifer and flowering species -- out of the 270,000 known species in 200 countries -- were now threatened with extinction or were nearly extinct, according to the 1997 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Plants.

"The numbers are staggering, not only because they are exceedingly large but because we are talking about the organisms on which all animal life depends," said David Brackett, chairman of IUCN's Species Survival Commission.

"Plants clothe us, feed us and our domestic animals, and provide us with most of our medicines, yet our knowledge of their status is woefully inadequate." he said. "This needs to change."

Follows news that that 11 percent of all birds and 25 percent of all known mammals species were threatened
The Red List, put together by groups including the National Botanical Institute of South Africa, the British Royal Botanic Garden Kew and the World Wildlife Fund revealed that 91 percent of endangered plant species are found only in a single country.

In other words, the only known populations of the endangered plants exist solely within the boundaries of a single country. "This limited geographic distribution can make a species much more vulnerable and may reduce options for its protection," the report said.

Island territories faced particularly high levels of threat to their flora, the report said. Seven of the top ten areas listed according to percentage of threatened plants, where the percentage reaches 20 to more than 40 percent, are islands: St. Helena, Mauritius, Seychelles, Jamaica, French Polynesia, Pitcairn and Reunion.

To be classified as "threatened," a species must have reached the point at which there were fewer than 10,000 individuals worldwide, or fewer than 100 locations were it could be found.

Taken in conjunction with the findings in last year's IUCN list of threatened animals, which revealed that 11 percent of all birds and 25 percent of all known mammals species were threatened, the implications of endangered plants led to grave concerns about the conservation status of the world's biodiversity, scientists said.

The disruption to biodiversity alters the complex web of ecosystems, according to the scientists involved in the study. This change could lead to outbreaks of diseases, changes in local economies and to medical and agricultural research losses.

Because plants historically provided many of the pharmaceutical drugs, widespread extinctions could affect medical science, according to the report.

More than one-half of all prescription drugs are modelled on natural compounds, including morphine and quinine, and one-fourth are taken directly from plants, or are chemically modified versions of plant substances.

For example, nearly 75 percent of the species from the Yew family, a source of important cancer-fighting compounds, are under threat. The willow family, from which aspirin is derived, has 12 percent of its species threatened.

"Numerous other species whose medicinal value has not yet been studied also are at risk," Brackett said, and agriculture could also be affected by the loss in plant species.

"Food crops were once wild plants at one time. We are still breeding those wild relatives of our crop species to improve disease resistance and increase yields and other desirable traits," he said.

The irreversible loss of the endangered plant species would mean limiting the possibilities for improving agriculture. Threats to plants could also endanger local economies -- one example being the endangered coral plant found only in central Chile.

The Mapuche Indians depend on the intact forest as a source of pliable stems of this plant, which they weave into baskets and sell throughout South America. Deforestation, however, is threatening this plant's existence along with the Mapuche's means of making a living as well as the cultural heritage of their craft.

Estimates probably conservative
Researchers acknowledged that the data on endangered plants from South America as well as in sections of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean is "patchy or lacking...there are parts of the world where there is not enough information available, or where there is no information at all, to assess properly the conservation of plants."

The more detailed a country's species inventory, the higher its proportion of threatened plants tended to be. Australia, South Africa and the United States provided complete data sets and were listed as having some of the highest percentages of national flora threatened.

Meanwhile, Brazil, with more than 56,000 reported plant species, had only 2.4 percent of its flora under threat -- a percentage doubted by most botanists.

"This report is just a first step," Brackett told IPS.

He had no doubts that, once more research was completed, the figure of 12.5 percent of the world's plants threatened with extinction would be a conservative estimate.

"The situation needs to change and this is a call to conservation action. We need to invest in botany. We can't afford to neglect the fate of the world's plants," Brackett said.

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Albion Monitor April 14, 1998 (

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