Caring for and Healing the Earth

Global Caretaking

Extinction Threatens 1 in 8 Plants Globally

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least one out of every eight plant species worldwide is threatened with extinction, scientists say, urging action to protect "the building blocks" of our food and medicine.
        The World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Plants listed 33,798 species, or 12.5 percent of the 270,000 known species of vascular plants, as threatened. The list was the result of 20 years of work by botanists and conservationists worldwide.
        "The message...should be distressing to all," Robert Fri, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, said at a news conference.
        Scientists from organizations that helped compile the list described the results as "startling" and a clarion call to protect what one called "the bottom line of the food chain."
        "We all need to step up our commitment to action," said David Brackett, chairman of the World Conservation Union's species survival commission. In 1996, the group reported 11 percent of all birds and 25 percent of mammal species were threatened.
        Threatened plants included 32 percent of the lily and iris families; 75 percent of yew species, which have yielded cancer-fighting drugs; and 32 percent of dipterocarps, a tree family with Southeast Asian species prized for lumber.
        "Plants are the building blocks of our food," said Deborah Jensen of the Nature Conservancy. Brian Boom, of the New York Botanical Garden, added one-fourth of medicines were drawn from plants.
        Wild plants also constitute a gene pool for improving food and feed crops, Boom said, and thus have great economic potential.
        Jensen, who cited a lily in the San Francisco area and a pea relative along the Potomac River south of Washington, said it was not uncommon for threatened species to live in urban areas.
        For the Red List, scientists reviewed fern, conifer and flowering plant species around the world against historical listings. While extensive data was available for North America, Australia and southern Africa, information for other regions was more fragmentary. Similar, if not higher, levels of threat were expected in those regions.
        Loss of habitat through human activity, such as urbanization, and competition from nonnative plants and animals was the greatest problem for threatened plants. Jensen and others encouraged conservation through preserves, managed areas and botanical gardens as well as public education for private action.
        "Charismatic" animals often get the spotlight when extinction is discussed, the scientists said, but it makes more sense to work on animal and habitat preservation in tandem. "You don't get pandas without bamboo," Boom said.
        Most of the threatened species -- 91 percent -- were present in only one country. Seven of the ten areas with the highest percentage of threatened plants were islands – St. Helena, Mauritius, Seychelles, Jamaica, French Polynesia, Pitcairn and Reunion.
        The Red List, a seven-pound paperback book the size of a telephone directory and bound with a red cover, also will be available through a World Conservation Monitoring Center site on the Internet,, a spokesman said.


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