Friday, 19 October 2012

The extinction of Madagascar's palms: "truly terrifying...the situation cannot be ignored"



For 192 palm species, Madagascar is the only place on Earth - and most probably in the Universe - where  you can see them growing in the wild. If we don't get our act together, the remote possibility of parallel evolution occurring on another planet may be your only option.

Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Biodiversity Conservation Group says "The figures on Madagascar's palms are truly terrifying, especially as the loss of palms impacts the unique biodiversity of the island and its people. This situation cannot be ignored."

Dr Smart is referring to the latest assessment of rare and threatened species in the world, the Red List, which concludes that 83% of Madagascar's palms are likely to become extinct if we do nothing about it. All 192 species of palm in Madagascar grow there and nowhere else. The vast majority of them, it seems, will be soon be found nowhere (on Earth).

All up, around the world, 65,518 rare species are included in this latest version of the Red List, with 20,219 of them threatened with extinction. Steve Bachman from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has estimated that of the 1325 new plants added, 90% were provided by Kew scientists. These new additions from Kew include palms from Madagascar and elsewhere, 951 legumes, 14 species from the Falklands and others from East Africa to Peru!

The palms in Madagascar produced the biggest headline, and with good reason. Not only are the statistics shocking in there own right but palms are used to build houses and as food by some of the poorest communities in Madagascar.

Bill Baker, our palm expert at Kew and leader of the group that reviewed the palm data for this new Red List, said that most of Madagascar's palms grow in rapidly shrinking rain forests on the east of the island. The rainforests are shrinking because they are being cleared for agriculture and logging.

Back in early 2011 I posted a story on the newly discovered Suicide Palm. That species is now included in the list for the first time. Kew's Millennium Seed Bank has already collected and germinated seedlings for reintroduction and to create an ex situ conservation collection.


Another species, Dypsis brittiana, is known from a single location but thought to be relatively well protected in the Makira National Park. However a survey in 2007 found no remaining plants. It gets classified as Critically Endangered.

A close relative, Dypsis tokoravina, is being targeted by seed collectors who chop the palm down to collect seed; there are only 30 individuals remaining in the wild. There are many similar stories with a mix of illegal seed harvesting, land clearing and degradation of remaining habitat.

One thing Kew has done, in collaboration with the national seed bank in Madagascar, is collect seed (legally) for conservation and to create a sustainable industry in seed harvesting. Kew also has a permanent base in Madagascar, helping to manage a 273 square kilometere reserve on the Itremo Massif through the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre.

If you are interested in finding out more about Madagascar and its flora there are various books published by Kew: e.g. Field Guide to the Palms of Madagascar (2006), Atlas of the vegetation of Madagascar (2007) and Orchids of Madgascar (2007). Also plenty of scientific publications, some of them referenced on Kew's Madagascar webpages.

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