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Palm Conservation
by Chuck Hubbuch

Former Director of Collections, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Worldwide, human development of natural environments is leading to the rapid loss of more and more plant and animal species. While this is widely discussed, the issues are not adequately expressed in the news media, our usual harbinger of bad news. Vast areas have been converted to pastures, homes and other human uses, leaving a patchwork of habitat fragments. At the same time, it is clear that we do not know enough about the natural world to understand where this will lead. No one fully understands the complex interactions between the natural plants and animals, even within a habitat. I know, for example, that many problems have arisen in African game parks with the struggle to balance forage plants, herbivores, predators, scavengers and the needs of neighboring people. They cannot forget things that most of us would rather not think about, such diverse issues like fire, poaching and vultures. At some level, similar problems affect natural area managers of even the smallest properties.

Although about one-quarter of the palm species are considered to be threatened at some level, scientific efforts specifically designed to conserve rare palm species are few and far between. This is true of plants in general. Conservation professionals tell us that it is much easier to raise public sentiment and dollars for the conservation of active, warm-blooded, fuzzy or feathered critters than it is for things such as plants and insects. When plants are conserved, it is often because the plant is part of the habitat of threatened birds or mammals.

A lot of field work is still needed in the world of palms. Over 400 species are listed as having an unknown conservation status in the World Conservation Union's palm conservation plan. Of course, many of these poorly known plants are native to remote areas of the world. Some species are not well understood. For example, should Mexico's rare Coccothrinax readii be included under the name of a commoner species, Coccothrinax argentata, as suggested by one author? Resolving these issues could keep palm researchers busy for years.

Unfortunately, the status of some palms is very well known. Looking upon the very last Hyophorbe amaricaulis in the world, at the botanical garden in Curepipe, Mauritius, is a sad moment indeed. It is a wild plant that grew in that spot before the botanical garden was developed. Although the possibility of tissue culture is being investigated, this Hyophorbe species seems likely to follow the dodo into extinction. The last wild Dictyosperma album variety conjungatum on Round Island, Mauritius has a brighter future because it produces viable seeds. Reportedly, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has about a thousand Dictyosperma seedlings slated for reintroduction onto Round Island. Despite a severe genetic bottleneck, it seems that this palm has a chance to survive in the wild for many more years.

Madagascar offers a situation similar to the one in Mauritius. The IUCN's Red List of Endangered Plants includes eighteen Dypsis species which are critically endangered or may already be extinct in the wild. Many of the other hundred palm species in Madagascar are threatened because they have been reduced to small, remnant populations in disturbed forests and grasslands.

In this hemisphere, the rarest palm is probably Haiti's Attalea crassispatha. The last count of mature and nearly mature individuals was twenty-four. Thanks to the efforts of New York Botanical Garden, Fairchild Tropical Garden and a handful of concerned individuals, approximately one hundred young plants are growing in cultivation today and several have been returned to Haiti. For this palm, the greatest problem is that its wild habitat is now gone. These few remaining "wild" plants are limited to the edges of pastures and fence rows.

In the United States, we have the Florida Key's locally endangered Pseudophoenix sargentii. A population of fewer than twenty mature individuals on one of the Keys ballooned to a population of over one hundred individuals because of a scientific reintroduction program by Fairchild Tropical Garden and Biscayne National Park. Although this program is still young, it shows great promise for the conservation of the local population. It may serve also as a model for similar projects with threatened Pseudophoenix sargentii populations in Mexico, the Bahamas and the western Caribbean. In Hawaii, the National Tropical Botanical Garden is helping with conservation efforts to protect twenty-three species of Pritchardia, including eight highly endangered species. As an example, only one mature wild plant of Pritchardia munroi remains on Moloka'i.

You may have noticed that all of these palms are native to islands. Island populations of plants and animals are especially vulnerable to competition from exotic plant and animal introductions, human disturbance, and even natural occurrences like cyclones. In the mountainous tropics, the situation is similar. Isolated mountain tops serve as islands of cool temperatures in a sea of lowland, tropical heat. The deforestation of a single mountain top may result in the loss of many species. With currently high levels of habitat destruction, however, even palms in forests of the vast Amazon basin are threatened by over-harvesting and habitat destruction.

Unfortunately, the issues of conservation are not easy ones to resolve. The problems are as complex as nature itself. Conservation plans, reintroductions and habitat restorations require careful scientific evaluation, time, and considerable resources.

Palm hobbyists sometimes get caught up in conservation issues. The demand for exotic seeds may be a blessing or a curse for a plant. If the living plant has a commercial value, it is more likely to be protected by the local population. Hobbyists who distribute seeds of rare palms may reduce the collecting pressures on wild populations. If every single seed is collected from a small wild population, however, that population is doomed. On the other hand, most seeds do not germinate in the wild. Collecting 25% of the seeds in a population does relatively little harm to the environment and gives collectors a good chance to establish a species in cultivation. Collectors should never collect plants from the wild, however, unless this is a genuine rescue operation in which the plants are in immediate danger of destruction.

At this time, simply planting a rare palm in your garden usually cannot be justified as conservation. Common problems with palm collections include hybridization and inbreeding. Scientists use plants without scientific documentation and records for reintroductions or other research in only the worst cases. Botanical gardens maintain high standards in records and documentation, and usually are more permanent than private collections.

Some people are putting their faith in science for solutions. They hope tissue culture and genetic engineering will solve our problems in the future. Others have suggested that colonization of other planets will relieve Earth's population pressures. Maybe this will happen, but I learned long ago that I have no ability to tell the future. I believe that we must stop wishing for a brighter future and accept responsibility for our actions today.

If a rare species is extirpated in the wild, every plant of that species that survives in gardens will become much more valuable to science. A new dam or road may lead to widespread destruction of a relatively common species. A rare palm may become relatively common if a new population is discovered or a taxonomic change lumps it under the name of a common species. For now, the best advice is to stay updated with conservation issues by reading the International Palm Society's journal, Principes, and try to avoid supporting illegal or unethical palm collecting. Grow the palms that you enjoy and those that succeed in your area, and share the seeds with friends and neighbors. If you want to support palm conservation, support botanical gardens and conservation organizations that focus on palms.

Chuck Hubbuch
Former Director of Collections
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
July 1998

If you wish to collect rare palms in a way that might be valuable in palm conservation some day, you will need to keep very good records about their sources. When you acquire a palm, record as much as possible of the following scientifically valuable information.

Plant name ______________________________________
Date acquired ____________
Condition of acquired plant (seed or plant, size and condition of plant) ________________________
_____________________________________________________________________________
Collector's name and address ___________________________________________
Source (country, state or province, specific site) _________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________________
Collected from the wild or a garden?  __________________

If from a garden:
Source of the parent plant __________________________________________________________

If wild collected:
Habitat description (elevation, light exposure, soil, moisture, associated species) __________________
______________________________________________________________________________

Number of individuals in this population _________________________
Number of parent plants from which seeds were collected _________________
Other facts about the parent plant or the habitat __________________________________________
______________________________________________________________________________
______________________________________________________________________________

 

To keep up with palm conservation issues you may contact the following:

World Conservation Union (IUCN)
IUCN/Species Survival Commission Plant Conservation Page
http://wwwcjb.unige.ch/BVAUICN/Bplants.htm

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) is the world's largest non-profit conservation organization, comprised of a network of conservation institutions and professionals around the world. One of its divisions is the Species Survival Commission, a group dedicated to the conservation of endangered species around the world. For the World Conservation Union's Palm Conservation Action Plan or the Red List of Threatened Plants, contact the IUCN Publications Services Unit at iucn-psu@wcmc.org.uk.

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International Palm Society
P.O. Box 1987
Lawrence, Kansas 66044-8897, U.S.A.
http://www.palms.org

The International Palm Society is a non-profit organization comprised of regional chapters, hobbiests and professionals around the world. The Society's journal, Principes, is published four times each year. Principes contains a wide range of information about palms, including both popular and scientific articles. It is the best way to keep up with the rapidly changing world of palms.

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Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
10901 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156, U.S.A.
(305) 667-1651
http://www.fairchildgarden.org

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is involved in conservation, scientific and educational activities, with an emphasis upon palms, tropical fruit and plants of Florida and the Caribbean. Its palm collection is one of the world's largest. Fairchild is a private 501 c4, charitable institution which depends solely upon contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations for funding. Donations to support Fairchild are gladly welcomed.


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