20 reasons to celebrate CREW’s 20th

Built on the idea that we need to know where plants are to be able to protect them, CREW began a remarkable journey in conservation 20 years ago


20 reasons to celebrate CREW’s 20th

Built on the idea that we need to know where plants are to be able to protect them, CREW began a remarkable journey in conservation 20 years ago

One of the CREW challenges can be getting your feet wet on the way to the plants as Ismail Ebrahim and Sharndré Heuvel find.


You could say that one good deed begot another . . .

Back at the beginning of this millennium, fynbos botanists were thrilled at the decade of data that had flowed in since 1991 for the Protea Atlas project, collected mainly by amateurs. It was an expression of commitment and concern from broader civil society that nobody wanted to lose – and within a couple of years it was reharnessed.

This time the idea was broader – enlist the help of enthusiasts to monitor threatened plant species. And so back in 2003, the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) programme was born. Key sponsors BotSoc and the Mapula Trust soon saw the value of CREW and formally partnered with SANBI to fund the programme and help it expand.

Fast forward to the present, CREW has grown into a robust network of volunteers across the country who monitor threatened plant species to help track and safeguard them. Their data provides priceless critical insights into the status of threatened plants and helps shape local and national policy.


Celebrate CREW’s 20th anniversary with these 20 highlights of its pioneering conservation journey


CREW has grown into a major citizen-science programme that stands at the forefront of South African environmental management, playing a pivotal role in realising national and global plant conservation goals.


CREW has discovered about 80 new plant species and rediscovered more than 70 species.


Three plant species discovered through CREW have been given botanical names honouring the programme’s contribution to plant taxonomy – Aspalathus crewiana, Marasmodes crewiana and Otholobium crewii.

Left: Marasmodes crewiana is critically endangered – it is threatened by ongoing habitat degradation and competition from invasive alien plants. Middle: This is Otholobium crewii, found by the Friends of Tygerberg Hills group within the CREW programme. Another species from the genus, Otholobium outrampsii, was found by the Outramps CREW group in the Outeniqua mountains. Right: Aspalathus crewiana is endemic to the Western Cape and known from only two localities. Photos by Ismail Ebrahim



One CREW discovery for the CREW time capsule will soon be published with a very special twist – the scientist describing it started out as a CREW citizen scientist!


CREW operates in key plant priority areas within South Africa focusing on the conservation of critical sites for threatened plant species.


Key to CREW’s success have been its dedicated volunteers from across South Africa who generously dedicate their time to taxonomic research and plant data collection.


Data from CREW volunteers provides a time series of invaluable, nationwide information on the status of South Africa’s threatened species via the national IUCN Red List of Plants dataset. These updates in turn improve threat assessments for our plant species.


CREW is a platform for continuing learning through its plant-identification courses, lectures from experts, collaborations with university researchers and informative workshops..


Over time, CREW’s regular monitoring has produced a wealth of knowledge about plant populations and threats to them. This has helped prioritise species needing conservation interventions, such as population recovery and restoration, and also active responses to the succulent plant-poaching crisis.

The exciting challenge of tracking and monitoring threatened plant species has inspired the engagement of citizen scientists – top left: Durban CREW monitor Inanda mountain outside the city, from left: Barry Lang, Bertha Pitout, Peter Warren, Jocelyn Sutherland, Sachin Doarsamy, Vasha Chetty and Hlengiwe Mtshali. Top right: a CREW team in Limpopo in the field searching for the critical habitat species Aloe reitzii var. vernalis. Photo by Livha Nkuna. Centre: Durban and Midlands CREW survey for critically endangered Adenia natalensis, known only from two collections made in 1865 – from left, Neil Crouch, Kathy Milford, Bertha Pitout, Alison Young and Anthony Walton. Below: The annual CREW Human Capital Development Workshops in 2022 for students from the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda were a great success. Photo by Suvarna Parbhoo Mohan



CREW is deeply involved in both conserving plants in their natural location (in situ) and offsite (ex situ), which may be necessary for the plants’ protection.


CREW data is integrated into decision-making processes about our environment – management plans, screening tools, planning expansions of protected areas and systematic biodiversity plans. This in turn enhances monitoring and surveillance of threatened plants.


CREW data helps construct a comprehensive understanding of threatened plants across South Africa’s diverse regions to guide taxonomic research, support conservation prioritisation, inform policy, boost ecosystem health, preserve biodiversity and encourages international collaboration.


CREW volunteers have encountered various challenges, particularly invasive alien species control, mining proposals and urban expansion, while remaining dedicated to protecting our precious plants.


CREW has been a key contributor to the national biodiversity stewardship initiative, collaborating with various organisations to incorporate private and communally owned land in biodiversity priority areas into an extension of the national protected areas network.


Our citizen scientists have played a crucial role in preserving urban green spaces and fragments, building trust with landowners and providing ongoing data for new and proclaimed sites.



CREW’s many volunteers are the unsung heroes who keep giving us all the scoop on how our unique plants are doing. Over two decades, they have forged enduring memories, amassed marvellous experience and significantly broadened their botanical knowledge.


The passion for discovering new plants and finding out more about plants has not diminished over the past two decades and continues to inspire everyone involved, with a new, younger generation already involved.

Top: Undeterred by weather conditions, the Mpumalanga Plant Specialist Group press on at Klingenberg farm. Photo by Penny Burchmore. Bottom: At St Francis Bay, the Fourcade botanical group participates in CREW and also holds monthly botanical rambles for the community to enjoy, combining botany with a sense of belonging.


CREW groups take conservation and plant science to the community and are often seen in the forefront of broad citizen-science initiatives such as the recent Great Southern BioBlitz.


CREW’s pivotal role in safeguarding South Africa’s unique plant diversity and enriching our knowledge inspires South Africans to join environmental initiatives such as BioBlitz, prompting us all to observe nature around us and hone our identification skills.


CREW’s 20-year journey stands as a testament to the power of collaborative citizen science.

Ready to rumble – the CREW team from the Cape floristic region gathers at Lion’s Head, Cape Town.

Sharndré Heuvel (s.coutriers@sanbi.org.za) has been CREW Programme Officer in the Western Cape since 2022, having joined CREW as a conservation technician in 2019. She has an advanced diploma in nature conservation and began working in conservation in 2012 while still a student. She is fascinated by ecological functioning and processes, particularly the intricate interactions between organisms in natural systems. 

To join CREW as a volunteer, contact: crew@sanbi.org.za


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