The latest IUCN Red List update, published last week, does not make comfortable reading. An ever-growing list of extinct species reminds us that we urgently need to persuade the world’s leaders and decision-makers to put nature first.
As usual, media coverage has focused primarily on the large animals that are declining or, in some cases, recovering. You can search in vain for any mention of plants, other than in the most generic terms.
Take, for example, one of the floral kingdom’s most spectacular, charismatic and endangered plant families: South Africa’s proteas. The latest update includes, for the first time, assessments of the status of all 353 known species. An astonishing 165 of these – that’s virtually half – are officially threatened with extinction.
Why is this not headline news?
According to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, plant species have been going extinct much more quickly than we thought. A recent study found that 571 plant species have been irretrievably lost since 1750, four times the number previously recorded on the IUCN Red List. Tellingly, this figure is twice the recorded number of bird, mammal and amphibian extinctions combined.
Yet even this shocking statistic is still likely to be a gross underestimate. The long generation times of many plant species mean that they can persist in ecosystems long after their pollinators, seed dispersers or even other individuals with which to reproduce have died out. These functionally extinct species are dubbed ‘the living dead’ by ecologists.
Furthermore, by virtue of their sheer diversity, it is likely that many plant species are going extinct before scientists have even had a chance to discover them. The total number of vascular plant species – ferns and flowering plants, in other words – is estimated to be close to 400,000, with approximately 2,000 new species being discovered every year. For plant conservationists, this poses a huge challenge. The status of over 90% of known plant species has yet to be assessed.
The disproportionate attention given to the study of animals, in comparison to plants, is a constant source of frustration among botanists. Particularly in western societies, people have a tendency not to notice the plants around them.
As our name suggests, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has a problem with this phenomenon, known in conservation circles as plant blindness, and we have been working to address this imbalance for decades.
FFI is taking crucial in situ action for a plethora of plant species – including some of the world’s most endangered flowers – whether threatened by trade, agricultural expansion or overharvesting. Our work with proteas and other threatened flower species in South Africa is a prime example.