Going, going, gone: auction offers up rare opportunity to name a species

Choosing a name for a newly discovered species is an honour usually reserved for the discovering scientists. But when researchers from the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust came across a new flowering plant – a member of the iris family – in South Africa, they decided to open the opportunity up to the public.

An auction, being run by Fauna & Flora International and the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust (via online auction site Giving Lots), will bestow the naming rights to the highest bidder, with all proceeds going to support the conservation of lowland renosterveld – the Critically Endangered ecosystem where the plant was discovered.

This is an ideal opportunity for gardeners, amateur botanists and others with a keen interest in plant conservation to leave a lasting scientific legacy or name a beautiful flower after a loved one. The highest bidder will not only get the right to name the species, but will also receive a painting and bronze casting of the flower.

The auction is open now, and will close at Fauna & Flora International’s Annual General Meeting at the Royal Geographical Society (London) on 31 October 2012.

Visit www.irisauction.com to place a bid.

Surprising discoveries in South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom

In November 2011, scientists from the Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust visited two farms on South Africa’s Western Cape that are home to some of the last remaining patches of lowland renosterveld – a unique ecosystem with the highest diversity of bulbous plants in the world along with hundreds of species found nowhere else on Earth.

“The two farms we visited form part of the largest remnant of lowland renosterveld in the Overberg, and probably the world,” said Odette Curtis, who led the research team. “We were looking to learn more about the state of the renosterveld there, and to get an idea of how these sites might fit into conservation plans in the Overberg region.”

What the team didn’t expect was to discover several plants that, until now, were unknown to science.

“It was truly astounding,” said Odette. “Having worked in this field for about eight years, I knew that the renosterveld had many hidden secrets; but to find four new species on just two sites – well, I was quite taken aback.”

One of the discoveries was a beautiful and fragile member of the iris family, from the African genus Hesperantha, and it is this species that will be named by a member of the public.

Waiting for a name - the recently discovered Hesperantha. Credit: Odette Curtis/Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust.

Waiting for a name - the recently discovered Hesperantha. Credit: Odette Curtis/Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust.

According to Peter Goldblatt, Senior Curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, who is writing the first scientific description: “This plant is a real surprise – flowering late in the year when the surrounding vegetation is dry and brown, its bright pink flowers make a really striking contrast. It actually blooms at the beginning of the dry season in an area that has relatively low rainfall anyway. At flowering, the leaves are more or less dry and only the flowers and buds show that the plants are alive.”

To date, it has only been found on one site in the Overberg district (on the southern tip of South Africa) – an area where less than 6% of the original renosterveld coverage remains today.

Too fertile for its own good

The fragmented and degraded renosterveld that we see today is very different from the ecosystem that existed 300 years ago, which would have supported large numbers of herbivores (including black rhino, after which renosterveld is named) whose browsing habits are thought to have helped maintain the diversity and structure of this system.

Sadly, because of the fertile nature of lowland renosterveld, it has been subjected to centuries of mismanagement for agriculture and livestock grazing, as well as severe levels of transformation, and as a result is now Critically Endangered.

“Despite the vital role that plants play in ecosystems, fundraising for floral species has always been a ‘difficult sell’, with charismatic mammal species attracting far more attention (and cash) from donors,” said Mark Rose, Chief Executive at Fauna & Flora International.

“This auction presents a great opportunity to raise the profile of the plight of the renosterveld and raise much-needed money to support this under-funded, rather neglected, field of conservation.”

Landowners as custodians

Today, only those areas that are well managed retain the characteristics of true renosterveld, and most of these are found on private land. Consequently, the future of renosterveld lies in the hands of individual landowners.

The Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust works with these private landowners (along with government agencies and other NGOs such as Fauna & Flora International) to protect what remains of the renosterveld by improving scientific knowledge on best practices for its management, by raising awareness amongst landowners about their role as custodians, and by creating incentives to conserve these ecosystems.

The funds raised by the auction will support this valuable work and help to ensure that this rare habitat (and its plants and wildlife) will survive into the future.

For more information on the terms and conditions of the auction, and to place a bid, visit www.irisauction.com.

You can also download the media release and fact sheet (PDF) to find out more.