Resolve to be a Red List plant protector
JAN 8, 2021 | WRITTEN BY RUPERT KOOPMAN. Photos by Rupert Koopmand and Dr Adriaan Grobler.
If you need a botanical New Year resolution, get to know the South African Red List – a global first
What makes a favourite website? For me, it should be updated regularly so you find a wonderful gift of interesting information whenever you visit – and focus on plants!
You could describe one of my favourite websites as rather like a social media account – but with a lot more science behind the filtering process. It is the Red List, a compendium of fascinating facts about nearly every single South African plant ever described, including the current conservation status of each one.
It is curated by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). A decade ago, it made South Africa the first of the dozen or so mega-diverse countries to assess its entire flora – 20 456 species in at the end of 2009 – a truly herculean effort led by Domitilla Raimondo, now Programme Manager at SANBI’s Threatened Species Unit.
This achievement is significant because it means that since 2005, every plant species in South Africa has been assessed at least once in line with criteria established by the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This gives detailed understanding of the threats facing South Africa’s plants that is crucial in helping us set conservation priorities.
Above: This ‘red plant bible’, published in 1980, set South African on the journey to a global first with its Red List. Photo: Rupert Koopman.
Red List: Behind the scenes
Being part of the Red List team is a fascinating job for SANBI plant Red List specialist Hlengiwe Mtshali.
“I get to list plant species that are threatened and need attention,” she says. “This helps decision-makers in adding species to their overall conservation plans. Knowing that I contribute somehow to the future survival of these plants makes me very happy.”
Hlengiwe and her colleagues sift through years of well-curated botanical data and can refer questions to botanical experts. It takes a half or full day to complete an assessment of a well-documented species.
“We depend on available data, such as locality records, an estimate of population size and threats,” Hlengiwe explains. “We have to verify each point and do a thorough assessment.”
One of her favourite projects so far was the recent assessment of the protea family (Proteaceae) because such comprehensive historical data was available from the Protea Atlas Project and combined with recent detailed field observations from CREW and iNaturalist.
Top: In seasonal wetlands at Riverlands Nature Reserve, South of Malmesbury, the bright yellow flowers of an endangered member of the aster family, Relhania rotundifolia, attract SANBI plant Red List specialist Hlengiwe Mtshali. Photo: Rupert Koopman.
Pinpointing protection priorities
The first South African Red List was compiled in 1980 by Professor Anthony Hall and his colleagues, drawing much of their information from interviews with botanical experts. That first Red List assessed 1 893 South African plants or plant groups (taxa). In 1997, an update led by Craig Hilton-Taylor now Head of the Red List Unit at the IUCN Species Programme, assessed 3916 taxa and 948 taxa were assessed in the 2002 update led by Dr Janice Golding.
The current Red List’s frequent assessments and updates also direct the spotlight onto previously overlooked threatened habitats and the species found there. The autumn asters (Marasmodes) have been highlighted recently as South Africa’s most threatened genus, for example, and Swartland shale renosterveld as the vegetation type holding the most threatened species. Habitat loss remains the largest threat to South Africa’s flora.
The 2020 Red List showed the significant increase in poaching as a threat to succulents, which was covered in the September 2020 issue of Veld & Flora (‘Help combat SA’s succulent robbery‘). Cone plants (the Conophytum genus) have been especially heavily impacted by demand for wild harvested plants.
“A total of 13 Conophytum species listed in 2016 as Least Concern have been uplisted to Vulnerable or Endangered and a further 12 have been listed as Critically Endangered for the first time,” reported the 2020 Red List.
Above: Critically endangered Aspalathus cliffortiifolia is restricted a small area in and around Port Elizabeth and is a highly localised dune-endemic. Photo: Dr Adriaan Grobler.
Make your observations count
Plant lovers can directly contribute their data and observations to help scientists better understand and protect threatened plant species. Now you can notify the Red List team at SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme of your find by adding your observation to the Red List Alert Project on iNaturalist. Click here to join iNaturalist and help with species observations.
Do your bit in 2021 to increase what we know about South Africa’s plants.
Above: Cover of the 2009 Red List of South African Plants, published by SANBI. Photo: Rupert Koopman.
‘The Red List of South African plants – A global first’ by D. Raimondo, South African Journal of Science, 2011;107(3/4), Art. #653. Open access.
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