SUNDAY, March 03, 2024

Across the world, plant species are disappearing fast

Across the world, plant species are disappearing fast

Mankind depends on plants for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, but little is in fact known about the world’s more than 400,000 plant species.

Unlike animals, botanists can’t track a plant’s footprints through the forest or call them in with whistling songs. As a result, we’re often not even sure what the world is losing until it’s too late.

“I think the greatest threat immediately to the plants in the world is land use change, be that for agriculture or housing, it's certainly an immediate threat where forests are cut down and pristine grasslands are ploughed,” Dr Carly Cowell, Conservation policy Lead at the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew, told Reuters.

With the world’s remaining jungles and boreal forests still being converted for activities such as livestock farming, palm oil plantations or urban development, at least 40% of the world’s remaining plant species are in trouble and the rate of plant extinctions are at least 500 times higher than the background rate of extinction, according to Kew’s 2020 State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report.

Scientists have now spent decades in sterile laboratories carefully cultivating the remaining individuals of vanishing species and saving seeds in enormous vaults. With an immense array of scientific tools at their disposal, it’s time to start planning for what comes next, scientists said.

As some botanists have even begun discussing outplanting species beyond their known native range as a “hedge against climate change,” Dr Colin Clubbe, a senior researcher at Kew is calling on scientists to look out from the labs to get planting in the wild.

“This is yellow fatu, the Abutilon pitcairnense, found only on the island of Pitcairn in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and this is a plant that was really on the edge of extinction,” Clubbe told Reuters in Kew’s Temperate House which he dubs ‘a cathedral to plants.’

“It was being surrounded and attacked by invasive species and a landslide took the whole population away and destroyed the last remaining plant,” he said.

But the efforts of a local conservation officer mean the plant is still growing, in Kew and the Caymans.

“40,000 seeds were sent back to the Millennium Seed Bank so it's now safe in ex situ conservation in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank seeds, but also on (Cayman) island now it's secure in the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park where they using it to promote it as a landscaping plant and getting people to grow that in their homes and to secure the future of this plant, that's unique only to the Cayman Islands,” Clubbe said.

World leaders meeting in Montreal, Canada, to develop a global strategy for protecting and conserving nature, hope to persuade countries to set aside 30% of their land for protection in the next seven years - providing potential safe havens for plants.