A new study has found that a third of plants in tropical Africa are potentially threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, another third are considered rare, meaning that they could become threatened in the near future. The worst affected areas are Ethiopia, West Africa, central Tanzania, and the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 40 percent of potentially threatened plant species reside.
The preliminary estimates, published in the journal Science Advances, assessed over 22,000 species in tropical Africa using RAINBIO, a database of tropical African vascular plant species distribution. Vascular plants are those that have a vascular system that transports water and food around their various structures. Non-vascular plants include flora like liverworts, mosses, and algae.
The team wanted to address the fact that only 10 percent of plants have been assessed for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, as determining the conservation status of plants can be a tricky, time-consuming job. The researchers used computer analysis to assess the status of 22,036 species in the RAINBIO database, a speedier method than normally used by the IUCN.
However, according to Thomas Couvreur of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, “the two approaches are complementary.”
“There still needs to be an important international effort to evaluate all the plant species in Africa," he said, according to AFP.
The researchers concluded that 32 percent of species could be threatened with extinction, that’s about 7,000 individual species. “Our study thus provides further evidence that the flora of tropical Africa will be highly vulnerable in the future,” they write.
Losing so many tropical plant species would be problematic because it would massively reduce biodiversity, the variety of life in a particular habitat. Plants sequester carbon dioxide from the air, release oxygen, and provide protection and food for a vast array of life, from minuscule insects to hungry elephants. Fewer plants and lower diversity would have knock-on effects, damaging the health of Africa’s unique ecosystems and threatening the survival of wildlife.
Meanwhile, certain plant species native to tropical Africa are crucial to us – 60 percent of plants belonging to the genus Coffea, some of which produce our precious coffee beans, are threatened with extinction.
The study’s authors note that risks to Africa’s plants are only likely to be exacerbated by the climate crisis. “This situation will no doubt be magnified by the effects of climate change, which is one of the most important assumptions influencing extinction risk,” they write, noting the urgency with which Africa’s plants need to be protected.