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Contact: Bronwyn Friedlander
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

New study shows over one-fifth of the world's plants are under threat of extinction

A global analysis of extinction risk for the world's plants, conducted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew together with the Natural History Museum, London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has revealed that the world's plants are as threatened as mammals, with one in five of the world's plant species threatened with extinction. The study is a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world's estimated 380,000 plant species is known, announced as governments are to meet in Nagoya, Japan in mid-October 2010 to set new targets at the United Nations Biodiversity Summit.

Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum and IUCN Specialist Groups carried out the Sampled Red List Index assessments on a representative sample of the world's plants, in response to the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity and the 2010 Biodiversity Target. The work relied heavily on the vast repository of botanical information held in Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, which includes some eight million preserved plant and fungal specimens; on specimens held in the Natural History Museum's own extensive herbarium of six million specimens; on digital data from other sources and on collaboration with Kew's network of partners worldwide. The results of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will be launched at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at a press call on 28 September 2010 at 10am.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, says: "This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human induced habitat loss.

"For the first time we have a clear global picture of extinction risk to the world's known plants. This report shows the most urgent threats and the most threatened regions. In order to answer crucial questions like how fast are we losing species and why, and what we can do about it, we need to establish a baseline so that we have something against which to measure change. The Sampled Red List Index for Plants does exactly that by assessing a large sample of plant species that are collectively representative of all the world's plants."

He adds, "The 2020 biodiversity target that will be discussed in Nagoya is ambitious, but in a time of increasing loss of biodiversity it is entirely appropriate to scale up our efforts. Plants are the foundation of biodiversity and their significance in uncertain climatic, economic and political times has been overlooked for far too long.

"We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear - plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we. Having the tools and knowledge to turn around loss of biodiversity is now more important than ever and the Sampled Red List Index for Plants gives conservationists and scientists one such tool."

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says, "This report comes at an important time in the lead up to the major international biodiversity meeting in Nagoya next month. 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.

"We must take steps now to avoid losing some of these important species and the UK will show leadership as we look to make progress towards a framework for tackling the loss of the Earth's plant and animal species."

The study revealed:

The Sampled Red List Index for Plants is part of a worldwide effort to create a tool to monitor the changing status of the world's major groups of plants, fungi and animals. In the future, the project will involve reassessments at regular intervals which will chart the changing fortunes of the world's plants; much like a stock market index shows the ups and downs in the value of shares. This will highlight where and what conservation action is needed to protect plants. However, funding is needed in order to continue this important work.

7,000 plant species drawn from the five major groups of plants were included in the study: Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), pteridophytes (these are land plants, such as ferns, that produce neither flowers nor seeds and reproduce via spores), gymnosperms (such as conifers and cycads), monocotyledons (one of the major groups of flowering plants including orchids and the economically important grass and palm families) and legumes (the pea and bean family), as representative of the other flowering plants. Both common and rare species were assessed in order to give an accurate picture of how plants are faring around the world.

As the task of assessing the threat to the world's plants (perhaps as many as 380,000 species) would present a much larger challenge than the assessments of threats to birds (10,027 species), mammals (5,490 species) or amphibians (6,285 species), a sampled approach was adopted where 1,500 species were randomly selected from each of the five major groups of land plants. Simulation modelling from the complete IUCN Red List assessments of birds and amphibians confirmed that 1,500 species for each group of plants would provide a representative view of plants overall.


The results of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will be announced at a press call at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on 28 September 2010, starting at 10am. To attend, please call the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press team on +44 (0)20 8332 5607 or email pr@kew.org

Interviewees available:

Images are available to download http://www.kew.org/press/images/SRLI_plant_list.html Please call the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press office for a user name and password

A PDF with further background about the Sampled Red List Index for Plants is available from the Kew press office

A number of additional resources will be available on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website on 00.01 GMT 29 September: interactive maps and charts exploring the state of global plant life and profiles of plants assessed as part of the study. See http://www.kew.org/plants-at-risk (note this link only goes live on 00.01 GMT 29 September, to access these resources in advance contact the Kew press office)

Additional quotes:

Professor David Mabberley, Keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives: "Kew's Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives is the leading, international scientific resource on the botanical world and an invaluable asset to all those involved in plant conservation. We are incredibly proud to have played a principal role in reaching this important milestone in understanding the true scale of the threat to plants. In the future, the Sampled Red List Index for Plants will enable all of us to accelerate progress towards the important 2020 biodiversity target. Humanity cannot afford to lose a fifth of the world's plants and so we must act quickly."

Steve Bachman, Plant Conservation Analyst and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: "Present day human activities are pushing more plants towards extinction, but if the world's governments take the right steps at the UN biodiversity meeting in October, we do have the potential to safeguard plant life and the creatures that depend on it. Plants underpin many ecosystems and the loss of key species could cause the system to collapse like a house of cards."

He adds, "Technology is changing the face of conservation and increasingly we have the ability to manage masses of data to inform governments of the impact of human activities on biodiversity.

"Using herbarium collections and modern mapping techniques, including satellite images, we can identify regions of the world, such as Madagascar, where plants are most at risk, providing a focus for conservation work and making sure resources are used effectively and that the right plans are put in place to save these plants."

Dr. Neil Brummitt, formerly Plant Diversity Analyst and co-ordinator of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and now Researcher in Botanical Diversity and lead on the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Natural History Museum: "The diversity of plants underpins all life on earth, so it is sobering that our own species is threatening the survival of many thousands of plant species.

"The work in this report took us several years to complete and is based on very careful assessments of thousands of species worldwide by hundreds of scientists. For the first time we have reliable data on which types of plants are most threatened, where and why. It would not have been possible without modern developments in computers and satellite imagery: anyone can see the extent of habitat conversion with Google Earth, but our report relates this to the status of individual species all over the world and clearly shows the depth of the biodiversity crisis we face.

"All our efforts will have been worthwhile if the world's leaders can now be galvanised into taking significant steps towards reducing the current rate of loss of biodiversity. The Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya in October is the time and the place to take these steps. If we are to prevent the planet's sixth mass extinction then we need to act together, and act quickly - globalisation needs to be ecological as well as economic."

Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Responsible Owner for the Sampled Red List Index for Plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: "This landmark report represents the culmination of a huge amount of work by Kew staff, volunteers and collaborators over several years. It illustrates the unique and critically important role that Kew's data and expertise have to play in informing policy and guiding practical conservation action on the ground.

"Each individual assessment addresses the current status and threats to a particular species in sufficient detail to be of use to conservation practitioners in the field. Collectively the assessments form a unique, evidence-based and auditable overview of the status of the world's plant diversity.

"It's vital that we maintain and update the data set with field observations so that we can monitor trends over time, but it's equally important that we make it easy for other scientists to adopt a similar approach. The methodology employed by the project is widely applicable and has attracted significant interest for use at national level. But much of the data that would be required is effectively locked up in our Herbarium and an accelerated effort is needed to digitise it and make it widely available to those who need it in order to manage their plant resources effectively."

Notes to Editors

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