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Plant life in peril - IUCN and Kew Gardens study

Dearbhla Crosse

29th September 2010

Alarming new research reveals human activity is 'devastating' plant life ahead of UN biodiversity summit, with up to twenty-two per cent of the world’s plants facing extinction

The research, undertaken by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, London, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was carried out as part of a worldwide effort to assess the status of the world’s flora and fauna and monitor threatened plant species.

The study, known as the ‘Sampled Red List Index’ (SRLI), is still pending approval but listed species are expected to be released at the end of October.

The SRLI will serve as a baseline upon which to measure the rate of species depletion for the first time ahead of October’s United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Summit at Nagoya, Japan, where governments are due to set new biodiversity targets for 2020. So far, all 219 signatories to the previous 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have failed to meet the 2010 biodiversity target.

‘In reality it hasn’t had a huge impact on the ground. The targets haven’t been met and we have seen an overall increase in the decline of biodiversity worldwide,' Steve Bachman, Plant Conservation Analyst at the Royal Botanic Gardens, told The Ecologist. 'Governments need to decide on local, regional and national actions.’

The research was carried out using plant and fungal specimens from both Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum’s herbarium. Due to the large volume of plant species an assessment sample of 1500 was taken from the five major land plants, out of a possible 380,000.

Experts fear that species are being eradicated before they have a chance to study them. The loss of plant life across the globe will affect all species experts say, including humans. Plants containing essential medicinal properties are the only source of treatment for certain communities in developing countries such as India. If these are wiped out scientists fear it could have devastating effects.

Dr. Neil Brummitt, Researcher in Botanical Diversity at the Natural History Museum, London, told The Ecologist: ‘Human impact has caused 80 percent of the threat to plant species. The conversion of natural habitats to agricultural use doesn’t even take into account the future effects of climate change.’

The study found that deforestation is the most devastating threat to plant life, with timber and paper production significantly affecting Coniferous species, such as cedars and pine trees, as well as cycads.

Experts also found that rainforests were the most threatened habitat and that plant species found in the tropics were most at risk.

Up to 1.8 billion seeds from around the world have already been collected by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, Sussex, but these latest results mean that more will have to be done to safeguard at-risk plants.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said; “It is deeply troubling that a fifth of the world’s plants are facing extinction because of human activity. Plant life is vital to our very existence, providing us with food, water, medicines, and the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.’

For further information: http://www.cbd.int/gspc/intro.shtml

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