Nearly one in four plants in SA is under threat

In one of the continent’s largest collaborative conservation projects South Africa has become the first of the world’s mega-diverse countries to assess fully the status of its entire flora — a staggering 20 456 species.

The assessment, which has now been published in a book, Red List of South African Plants, was launched by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) last month and has shed light on several previous unanswered questions, the most important of which is ‘How threatened are South Africa’s plant species?”

‘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 [also] located mainly within its borders,” said Domitilla Raimondo, Sanbi threatened plants programme manager and lead author of the South African list.

The Red List reveals that:

  • 2 577 of South Africa’s wild plant species, or 13%, are threatened and in danger of extinction.
  • Another 2 232 plant species are listed under other categories of conservation concern. Combining the number of threatened species with those listed under other categories of conservation concern 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. Although their assessments have not been as comprehensive, they estimate only 6% and 3% of plants as threatened respectively. 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.
  • South Africa has 40 plant species that are extinct and another 76 are probably extinct (listed as Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct).
  • Five species have been listed as extinct for the first time in this list. The previous Red List was produced in 1996, which shows that South Africa is losing plant species at a rapid rate.

The research also showed that the trade in medicinal plant species played an important role in contributing to the livelihoods of many South Africans. It has been estimated that there are 27-million indigenous medicine consumers in the country with a large supporting industry.

The Red List exposes the status of these plants at a national level. It found less than 20% of South Africa’s 322 heavily traded medicinal plant species are threatened with extinction and that the majority of medicinal plants that have been assessed on the Red List are considered not threatened and have the status Least Concern.

Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List programme, based in Cambridge, England, said the significance of South Africa’s floral diversity was critical and underscored the significance of this assessment.

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