In December 2022, I made the difficult decision to leave my job at the aquarium to undertake a role doing science communication at a plant conservation charity. I came from an animal conservation background, and my learning curve was steep to learn the parallels of botanic gardens in the world of plant conservation opposed to my knowledge of zoos and aquaria within animal conservation. What I found was that the world of botanic garden and plant conservation is as fascinating as it is extensive, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you what I found.
Let’s talk about botanic gardens
So, starting at the beginning. What exactly is a botanic garden and what do they offer to the global conservation conversation?
Botanic gardens are institutions which document their collections of living plants for numerous reasons, including science, research, conservation, display, and education. In recent years, a focus on conservation and sustainability have come to the forefront of botanical initiatives.
Botanic gardens, with scientific focus, have been around for centuries, however, it is only within the last 50 years or so that they have begun to be recognised as an important tool to conservation and research of lesser-known species, including cultivation, collection, and successful propagation. As highly popular tourism attractions, Botanic Gardens can reach a huge audience to disseminate information and provide education for and this is a valuable tool to be able to unite and utilise on a global scale.
Active conservation from botanic gardens across the world includes;
· Horticulture and cultivation skills, allowing botanic gardens to grow plants that might be lost in the wild.
· Research and development into various areas of work, such as plant taxonomy, genetics, and environments.
· Education and communication to reach diverse audiences.
· Positive impact on human wellbeing and the conservation of indigenous and local knowledge.
· Encourage sustainability and sustainable development practices.
Aside from conservation, botanic gardens also offer other value in terms of access to green and natural areas within urban settings, employment opportunities for local communities, and contribution to local economies.
Another area that I have tried to learn more about is why it is so vital that we put in the effort to conserve plants. It is easy to focus on animals that are fluffy and charismatic and to forget about the role that plants play in our environment because they aren’t as mobile or relatable as other organisms. However, they have huge value for us as humans – and this has been a huge oversight of me, and many others, in the past.
A very brief look at the history of plant life
The first plants lived in the oceans over 700 million years ago as aquatic algae, prior to the plants evolving to live on land, the landscape would have been mostly bare. The emergence of plants on the earth’s surface was vital to cooling the atmosphere to a level where life was able to flourish – this came most notably in a period known as the Cambrian Explosion. During this time the ancestors of modern plants (and animals) began to evolve. Once they were off the starting blocks, they were able to diversify and continue evolving whilst spreading across the globe and away from their oceanic origins.
The value of plant diversity and the threats it is facing
Plant diversity is a vital ingredient in functioning ecosystems across the planet and support all life. They provide incredible ecosystem services including:
· Carbon sequestration
· Climate regulation
· Nutrient cycling
· Improved wellbeing
· Cultural importance
However, this diversity is under threat on a global scale. It is estimated that at least 25% of the worlds plant species are under threat of extinction due to several factors. Human impact cannot be ignored in the part it is playing in environmental degradation. Threats include:
· Habitat loss
· Habitat degradation
· Deliberate or accidental introduction of invasive species
· Over-exploitation through unsustainable logging and harvesting practices
· Poaching from the wild
· Climate change
The myriad of threats that are threatening our natural world mean that significant, coordinated action needs to be taken to halt or reduce further biodiversity loss.
So, what is being done?
There are 2 types of conservation that are undertaken by botanic gardens – In situ and Ex situ. Together these are known as Integrated Plant Conservation.
In situ is Latin for ‘on site’ and this is used to describe conservation of species within their natural habitats. With Ex situ being the opposite, when conservation action is to safeguard the species by keeping them in non-natural areas, such as living collections or seed banks within botanic institutions. With integrated plant conservation, these 2 types of conservation are purposely designed and practices to reinforce and complement each other to increase efficiency and effectiveness of conservation actions.
Botanic gardens are ideal locations for conservation action due to the global networks of resources, skills, and knowledge that are held within their living plant collections, seed banks, and teams of professionals. In addition, as tourist attractions, they can reach a high volume of people to share messages on plant conservation, sustainability, and environmental education – whilst gaining income from visitors to fund this work.
The importance of global conservation
With the work that is being done globally, we now know that 30% of tree species are threatened with extinction, and at least 142 tree species are recorded as extinct. We know that plants are in trouble, alongside most of the natural world, so what we do matters. Every botanic garden that works towards the protection of species around the world, every word that is published, every policy that is influenced, and every person that is educated on the importance of the natural world is a step in the right direction for a better, more sustainable world for us all.
“Without plants, there is no life. The functioning of the planet, and our survival, depends upon plants.”– Global Strategy for plant conservation (2011-2020)
I don’t know where my science communication career will go, but having come from animal conservation to plant conservation, I can see that both are filled with passionate, intelligent people who are doing what they can to protect global biodiversity and whether the beneficiaries are small and furry, large and scaly, green and leafy, or anything in-between, that is an important endeavour and a cause I can behind.
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