In reality, ex situ approaches have serious limitations and the extensive living collections in Kirstenbosch and the other SANBI gardens have been reviewed and restructured because of this. Firstly, with a flora of over 20 000 species, of which 25 per cent are of ‘conservation concern’, there is simply not enough nursery space to house even a small proportion of such species. Secondly, living collections need highly specialised horticultural skills to manage. Thirdly, many of the most threatened species are difficult to grow, short-lived or disease-prone under nursery conditions. And, finally, the very small sample populations that can be maintained in living collections are not representative of the great genetic variability of wild populations.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Mission Trips Photo Gallery
Globally, botanical gardens are now co-operating in programmes aimed at sharing responsibility for securing the survival of threatened plants: each garden focuses on a few groups of species that can best be maintained in living collections until their re-introduction to the wild can be implemented. Several approaches are being tested, with Kirstenbosch taking a leading role.
The Garden of Extinction displays species that have been extirpated in the wild, or are Critically Endangered.
Plant labels provide information on the species displayed in Kirstenbosch – such as this locally extinct Spiderhead Protea.
Encephalartos hirsutus, probably the most seriously threatened plant in South Africa, is now reduced to a single population.
When Anthony Hitchcock was appointed Collections Manager at Kirstenbosch in 2000, he was faced with a serious dilemma. The Garden had an enviably large collection of rare species of many genera, all individually potted and neatly arranged in various greenhouses: Ericas, Pelargoniums, Disas, Streptocarpus and many more. But there were very few horticulturists with time available to care for the massive collection. It was impossible to cover even a fraction of the over 1 000 species known at the time to be under threat in the Cape Floral Kingdom, and more were still to be added to the Red List as detailed assessments progressed. Hitchcock’s challenges included: how to conserve so many threatened plant species effectively, with a good representation of their genetic diversity? For how long can these plants be kept in effective ex situ collections, and how can they be accommodated? How can the conservation message be communicated to policy- and decisionmakers, and to the general public?
The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation provided Hitchcock with some guidance. The GSPC was unique among similar conservation agendas in that it set measurable targets for its objectives. Target 8, for instance, states that ‘by 2020, there should be at least 75 per cent of threatened plants in accessible ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin, and 20 per cent of them available for recovery and restoration programmes’.
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