Mobilising the World to Save Biodiversity

Luke Jerram’s Gaia at Bristol University in August 2019. © Karen Andrews

Annals of Botany Lecture

The Friends of the University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden invited Dr Paul Smith as their speaker for their October 2019 Annals of Botany Lecture. He is the Secretary General of the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). His comprehensive talk was entitled:

The role of botanic gardens as a positive force

to mitigate against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Botanic Gardens

Nicky Wray, the curator of the Bristol Botanic Garden, described a botanic garden as a sign of a mature city in introducing Dr Smith to the large audience. There are some 3,000 botanic gardens worldwide. Around 600 are active members of the BGCI. Dr Smith highlighted the importance of the word mobilise in the BGCI’s mission statement:

To mobilise botanic gardens and engage partners in securing plant diversity

for the well-being of people and the planet.

2020 Shift to Conservation?

Botanic gardens play a multi-faceted role in their cities and countries. The BGCI urges the importance of shifting greater emphasis to saving plant species with an integrated approach to conservation and ecological restoration. It is estimated that of today’s ice-free landscape 83% is directly influenced by humans. Transformed landscapes are becoming the norm as the human population increases. Many plants species are in trouble or going extinct.

It is not possible to save all land from development. Dr Smith suggested that a significant push for conservation is expected at the next round of high-level, international talks in 2020. Will there be an agreement to set aside 25% of the world’s landscapes? Such a plan would enable human innovation, adaptation and resilience. While it may not be possible to keep every cog in the wheel, Dr Smith argued there is no technical reason why any plant species should go extinct.

Disproportionate Representation

Mobilised and proactive botanic gardens have a key role to play in saving plant species. The BGCI helps to share the Northern Hemisphere’s expertise with the Southern Hemisphere. A map showed the global spread of botanic gardens. They are disproportionately represented in the Northern Hemisphere, while the plant species under greatest threat of extinction are in the Southern Hemisphere. This reminded me of Luke Jerram’s Gaia artwork exhibited at the University of Bristol in August 2019. The focus was on Australia, Africa and South America (see top photo).

Global Strategy for Plant Conservation

The second and current Global Strategy for Plant Conservation runs out in 2020. The next 10-year review is under way now by international institutions. Dr Smith stressed that there is no universal system to access information on living plants, seeds and tissue collections in the world. It is not possible to mine information on seed resistance and genetic material.

Seed Banks

Dr Smith highlighted 3 major seed bank collections in the world:

  1. The Australian PlantBank, New South Wales, Australia
  2. Germplasm Bank of Wild Species (GBOWS), Kunming, China
  3. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, Wakehurst, Sussex, United Kingdom

The Millennium Seed Bank

Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank offers the most diverse collection. It has the capacity to house 75% of the world’s storable seeds. A seed bank’s purpose is not just to store seeds. It has an important role in sending them out for propagation and conservation work.

US Conservation

Dr Smith also mentioned the Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA) in the United States. Its stated goal is to protect US native plant populations and communities.

BGCI’s PlantSearch

The BGCI’s PlantSearch is a global database of living plant, seed and tissue collections. It holds 1,418,557 records, representing 568,581 taxa, at 1,123 contributing institutions. It enables the user to locate threatened, rare, medicinal and other plant species in living collections for conservation, education and research purposes. The database contains:

  • 93% of vascular plant families
  • 42% of all known threatened species within in situ collections
  • 60% of temperate species in botanic gardens
  • 25% of tropical species in botanic gardens (many lack capacity to host their own databases).

The main weakness lies in non-vascular plant records. The database contains less than 5% of mosses and liverworts. Yet, these are recognised as of ecological importance. This situation seems particularly ironic given that the British Isles are considered significant for mosses, and not for vascular plants. The shortfall relates to the difficulties in telling such species apart.

BGCI ThreatSearch

The BGCI’s ThreatSearch database helps to coordinate and prioritise conservation efforts for threatened species. It is the most comprehensive and up-to-date database. The IUCN Red List only contains 7% of the world’s plants. The BGCI holds records on 22% of threatened species, including information from the disparate US, Australian and Mexican systems. It contains:

  • 300,000 conservation assessments, representing over 180,000 taxa
  • both global and regional conservation assessments

BGCI GardenSearch

The BGCI’s GardenSearch database provides information on botanic gardens worldwide. Users can search for gardens both in their local neighbourhood or elsewhere in the world. They can use it to identify specific resources, expertise, features, facilities and programmes. For example, you could look for a Bolivian threatened species held outside Bolivia.

Much expertise on Southern Hemisphere species is held in botanic gardens in the Northern Hemisphere. The BGCI facilitates the sharing of information and training. For example, not all seeds are orthodox and can be stored in seed banks. The BGCI helps to share knowledge and create communities of best practice on recalcitrant seeds. Dr Smith highlighted efforts on Rhododendron, Magnolia, Camellia, Acer and Oak.

BGCI GlobalTreeSearch

The BCGI’s GlobalTreeSearch database contains information on 60,000 tree species and country distributions.

Global Trees Campaign

The Global Trees Campaign aims to ensure that no tree species goes extinct. There are 120 critically endangered species in situ. In some cases, there are fewer than 50 trees living in the wild. There are 40 botanic gardens participating in 200 major projects. The Ecological Restoration Alliance (ERA) aims to return complex assemblages to the wild where possible. The projects bring vocational training to local people for 1 to 2 weeks. They teach seed conservation, nursery techniques, habitat conservation, etc.

International Plant Sentinel Network

Botanic Gardens and Arboreta can provide vital information on plant health. They can identify, research and act as early warning systems or sentinels to understand and predict future threats.


Funding is always an issue. It is much harder to gain funding to conserve plants as opposed to tigers for example. Competition for the small pots of money that do exist is fierce. The BGCI has an annual Global Botanic Garden Fund. Dr Smith discussed some of the successful BGCI case studies found on the institute’s website that demonstrate the value of investment in biodiversity.

The Future?

The BGCI is concerned that botanic gardens should not become Museums of Curiosity of dead species. Botanic garden visitors are influential in their communities and can voice concerns about biodiversity.

The BGCI aims to ensure that botanic gardens remain proactive in maintaining and conserving living plants. The BGCI can bridge the gulf between science and practice, overcome lack of botanical knowledge, and find financiers and sponsors. Dr Smith’s final message is one of hope for saving the world’s biodiversity.

BGCI Databases and other Webpage Links

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photography used from other sources is via Creative Commons licences and is credited and linked to the originators.

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