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Palm Conservation: Its Atecedents, Status, and Needs*
by Dennis V. Johnson
Palm Tree Resources Worldwide

Palm conservation is a small but integral part of the broader subject of biological conservation and the decline of wild plant populations as a direct and indirect result of human activities. A couple of relevant biological concepts and the historical background of the conservation movement provide a context for discussing the problems and prospects associated with the palm family’s conservation.

Central to any discussion of conservation is species evolution and the associated occurrence of species extinction. Since the origin of life on earth, about 3.5 billion years ago, the evolution of species (speciation) and the extinction of species have both been taking place. Species have gone extinct in nature because they were eliminated (out competed) by more adapted species (survival of the fittest) or species have gone extinct on a large scale as a result of major changes in the earth’s environment. The giant reptiles of the Jurassic period (180 million B.P.) being a vivid example of natural extinction of a group of organisms. The relevant point is that before the modern era, evolutionary processes were free to continue and bring forth new species, often replacing species that had become extinct. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (himself a palm scientist) are recognized as fathers of evolution theory through their work in the mid-19th Century.

Conservation only became an issue of concern when human populations began their dramatic worldwide increase. Over the past 150 years, for example, the earth’s human population has have increased sixfold, from about 1 billion to over 6 billion. This rise has brought with it ever-increasing pressures on the finite resources of the natural environment for agricultural production and industry, as well as harvesting of wild resources. The global environmental turning point we find ourselves in today is one of human-caused habitat degradation and destruction that is impeding the natural processes of evolution and bringing about large-scale extinctions of plant and animal species. This is the crisis of the loss of biological diversity.

The historical origins of conservation can be traced back to ancient religious and philosophical beliefs about the relationship between humans and their environment. Trees, for examples, have a very long folk history of possessing spiritual or magical attributes. Perhaps modern tree hugging is a vestige of those traditions. The important point is that the origins of conservation arose when human populations were predominantly small and rural and in closer touch with their environment. Somehow we need to recapture some of that relationship.

The European origins of conservation developed from two opposing ideas. The first idea is that nature was provided for human use and any use was justified as long as humans derive benefit. This anthropocentric (human centered) view of nature is still very strong. Witness the current debate about whether old growth forests in the U.S. should be preserved or harvested.

The growth of natural science in Europe in the 18th & 19th centuries provided an opposing idea. This second idea argued for the benefits of conserving the natural environment to some degree and was arrived at through direct scientific observations of the results of deforestation, soil erosion and pollution of watersheds. This idea that the natural environment should not simply be consumed as needed, led to the first conservation ordinances. Interestingly this took place in the tropics. For example, the French adopted regulations in 1769 on the island of Mauritius (then a colony) stipulating that 25% of every landholding be maintained in forest.

The British, in the mid 19th century, began the practice of establishing forest reserves in Colonial India. In Europe itself, concern about dwindling wild animal populations led to the establishment of protected forests to serve as hunting preserves for nobility. Although the motive of these reserves was for hunting, the protection of forest habitat was a conservation plus.

In 19th century America similar concerns arouse about nature which were popularized by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. John Muir, a wilderness advocate, drew upon the themes of Emerson and Thoreau and in his writings Muir espoused a preservationist ethic arguing that nature had intrinsic value apart from its economic value. An more practical view of nature was developed in the 20th century by Gifford Pinchot, first director of U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot’s resource conservation ethic stated that resources should be fairly distributed among present and future users and that resources should be used with efficiency.

The debate about nature and conservation had positive results, one of which was the establishment of the U.S. National Park system which began with Yellowstone Park in 1872 (the world’s first national park) and the formation of American conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by John Muir.

These views of conservation from the 19th and early 20th centuries were debated again beginning in the 1970s when scientists began to study and write about the impending biological diversity crisis. The past two decades have seen a tremendous increase in the level of activity with regard to conservation and how best to avoid loss of biodiversity, reduce global warming and deal with worldwide pollution.

The new academic specialty of conservation biology is one result of this on-going debate. The five principles of conservation biology are worth mentioning in brief. They are: 1) diversity of organisms is good; 2) untimely extinction of populations and species is bad; 3) ecological complexity is good; 4) evolution is good; and 5) biological diversity has intrinsic value.

Current plant and animal conservation activities derive largely from two sources. The first is the older and less formal nongovernmental source as represented by societies founded by enthusiasts to study and enhance enjoyment of particular taxonomic groups, such as orchids or birds. As part of the post WWII internationalization movement, a second and more formal government approach was brought into being through creation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland.

The largest of several Commissions within the IUCN structure is the Species Survival Commission established in 1949. Today, the SSC has about 5,000 volunteer members working within a network of Specialty Groups. Specialty Groups have as a major objective to provide accurate and up-to-date scientific information for use in formulating international and national government policies and legislation relative to natural resources.

Palm Conservation
The first notable scientific activity related to palm conservation took place only about 20 years ago, when Hal Moore in 1976 wrote a paper entitled "Endangerment at the Specific and Generic Levels in Palms." The paper was presented at a conference on threatened plants called Extinction is Forever. Moore’s paper drew attention to the need for palm conservation and this eventually led in 1984 to formation of the IUCN Palm Specialist Group.

Palm conservation is a complex and intricate subject. Let me elaborate on five factors that make palm conservation such a challenge.

First of all, palms are found in virtually every type of habitat, from the dense, wet, tropical lowland rainforest (e.g. Chamaedorea spp.), to high mountain forests (e.g. wax palms [Ceroxylon] up to 12,000 ft), in wet lowland estuarine habitats (nipa palm, Nypa fruticans), in desert oases (California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera) and in grasslands (Syagrus spp.). Palm habitats are found from as far north as Europe to as far south as New Zealand. Another habitat point is that some palm species thrive in areas of disturbance or deforestation, while other palms are extremely sensitive to habitat change and are exterminated. Francis Kahn’s detailed work on Peruvian palms documented how the chambira palm (Astrocaryum chambira), which is normally a forest palm, increases in numbers and density when the forest is disturbed or cleared. By contrast, Chamaedorea palms disappear with the forest. The chambira and other palms (such as Phoenix spp.) could actually be called "weed palms." For the palm family as whole, about 90% of the world’s palm species occur in tropical forests of one kind of another.

The second conservation factor is that palms have a wide assortment of growth forms. There are climbing rattans which can exceed 100 feet in length; ground-hugging species with underground trunks; extremely short (1 ft) to extremely tall (200 ft) palms; species with very thin pencil-like trunks to very thick such as in Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean wine palm, up to 6 ft in diameter; species that are single stemmed, produce basal suckers or in a few cases are branching such as Hyphaene. The palm family also has the distinction within the plant kingdom of having the largest leaf (Raphia), largest fruit (double coconut, Lodoicea maldevica), and largest inflorescence (Corphya). Such a variety of growth forms complicates attempts to protect palms in the wild.

The third conservation factor relates to the nature of palm seed. In most palm species, the seed viability of ripe fruit decreases rapidly. Palm seed cannot be dried and kept under low temperature conditions because the embryo is killed. This factor is a severe limitation to conservation and means that palms can only be conserved as living specimens.

A fourth conservation factor is the very limited role botanic gardens can play with regard to palm conservation. As far as conservation is concerned, two major obstacles exist with respect to botanic gardens (the same could be said of private gardens.) Obstacle "A" is that gardens can only grow a few specimens of any given palm species. They cannot, therefore, represent the range of characteristics found in the wild necessary to maintain biological diversity. Obstacle "B" is that, in many cases, palm species within the same genus tend to cross (hybridize) when grown in close proximity. This means that palm seed from a botanic garden may well be hybrid seed, which is of little conservation value. In short, we should not confuse conserving palm biodiversity with either palm collections in botanic gardens or ornamental horticulture of palms. These circumstances aside, botanic gardens and private growers are the source of a vast amount of valuable technical information on the growth requirements and cultivation of palms. The information generated by direct experimentation can be applied in efforts to protect and to reestablish wild palm populations.

The fifth and final factor that concerns conservation is that of taxonomy. The palm family is an ancient plant family with great diversity, and there exist some sharp differences between palm scientists with regard to certain scientific names. On the one hand, Dr. Splitter may describe a new palm species, only, on the other hand, to have Professor Lumper come along later and say the new species is really equivalent to an already published species and hence the new name should be treated as a synonym. From the standpoint of conservation, having to deal with two scientific names for a particular palm, until such time as the differences are resolved, makes record keeping more cumbersome. But it does not preclude going ahead with conservation measures to deal with individual situations. That differences exist regarding the naming of palms should be taken as a positive sign that serious scientists are striving to understand and describe palms in the most accurate way possible.

 Palm Conservation Activities
Beginning with the its formation in 1984, the Palm Specialist Group has undertaken a series of three initial activities to generate essential information about the status of palms in the wild (in situ), utilization of wild palms and palms under cultivation (ex situ).

The first phase of activity took place from 1985-1990, with support from World Wildlife Fund US. It consisted of a project in the American tropics that focused on palm conservation and utilization. The project involved the participation of ten palm specialists and a number of publications resulted. For example, a book on Bolivian palms was a direct result of the project.

A second overlapping phase was undertaken from 1986-1991 in Asia. This activity was supported by World Wide Fund for Nature in Switzerland and targeted four Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) where once again palm conservation and utilization were studied. This second project also generated a large quantity of new data and information on native palms, much of it published in a book entitled Palms for Human Needs in Asia. The book includes contributions from 7 palm specialists.

Building on the first two phases, along with the upgrading of the palm database at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, U.K. it was possible to begin the third phase: compilation of a global action plan for palm conservation. With financial support from IUCN in Switzerland, work on the action plan began in 1991. A dozen palm specialists have been involved in putting together the action plan, which is in its final editing stages at IUCN and is to be published in early 1996.

Palm Action Plan
As the culmination of more than a decade of work, the palm action plan represents a benchmark in terms of what we know or don’t know about the conservation status of palms and palm utilization, and it attempts to set forth priority conservation actions that need immediate attention. In general, the action plan emphasizes palms found in tropical forests and on islands, for these are known to be at greatest risk. Research for the action plan revealed that about 220 palms are highly threatened with extinction. The world hotspots of highly threatened palms are Madagascar, Colombia and Peninsular Malaysia. The research also showed we have no information on the in situ conservation status of more than 600 species of endemic palms. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are the two geographic areas of the greatest numbers of palms in this category.

The key to successful palm conservation is embodied in one word: habitat. Most palm species have particular forest habitat requirements such as soils, other plant species and insect pollinators. In some cases, animals are dependent upon palm fruits as a major food source. It has been found that Amazonian fishes eat palm fruits when the river is at flood stage. The Brazilian Lear’s macaw, one of the most threatened birds in the world, has a diet that depends upon Syagrus coronata palm fruits. The South American oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), a cave dweller, feeds almost exclusively on native oily palm seeds. Flesh of the oilbird is so oily that dead birds can be burned like a candle. Some species of orchids are also reportedly found growing only on the trunks of palms. These examples demonstrate that palms represent an integral and important part of tropical forests and that the loss of palm populations would affect other organisms.

As I said at the beginning of this article, palm conservation is only a small part of a larger picture. Therefore it is obvious that palm conservation cannot be done in isolation. Palm conservation must be carried out in close collaboration with the work of other plant and animal specialist groups and become an integral part of efforts to save tropical forest habitats. Accurate, reliable information about the identity, geographic distribution and conservation status of palms within forested areas. Combined with similar information about other native plants and animals can contribute to the justification for protecting representative forest habitats as parks, national forests, or the like.

I would like to briefly review the overall recommendations in the forthcoming action plan. Both general actions and individual actions were identified and formulated for an initial 3-year period of activity by the Palm Specialist Group.

General actions can be summarized in 5 topics.

1. Establish a secretariat for the Palm Specialist Group to a) serve as a coordinating point for activities; b) network and exchange information with other plant and animal specialty groups as well as organizations trying to prevent deforestation; c) manage the Palm Database for the WCMC; and d) provide technical assistance, as needed, to individual conservation projects. Having a host institution and a part-time group secretary, who is a palm specialist, will result in a more efficient and productive Palm Specialist Group.

2. Convene a formal meeting of the Palm Specialist Group. The Group has never held such a meeting and it is long overdue. There is no substitute for a face-to-face working group setting discussion and debate about priorities for palm conservation.

3. Refine and expand the palm database. Despite a decade of work, the database still has errors in it (there are about 2,900 palm names in it, many of which are synonyms), and data are lacking on geographic distribution, habitat, utility and conservation status in the wild. A reliable database is essential to conservation work.

4. Develop a species triage (the term means picking out or culling) policy and procedure. We need to be able to make informed choices about which species should have priority over other species in attempting to maintain palm biodiversity. A scoring system can be designed that takes into account biodiversity uniqueness and other factors to assign each species a rank number for palm conservation purposes. Given the number of palm species on the brink of extinction and limited financial resources available for conservation actions, we will not be able to prevent a certain number of extinctions, especially in places like Madagascar.

5.    Develop a protocol for reintroduction of palms into areas where they have become extinct. Carol Lippincott’s work on the reintroduction of Pseudophoenix sargentii to the Florida Keys is the first scientific reintroduction effort dealing with palms and can serve as an example for general guideline development applicable in other countries.

Turning from general to individual more site-specific palm conservation actions, four were identified as meriting priority action: identified as follows:

1. Compile palm conservation checklists for the island of New Guinea (including the Indonesian portion, Irian Jaya), and for the Atlantic Forest of South America. Both these are needed to be able to make more detailed plans for conservation actions within the respective regions.

2. Rescue critically threatened Madagascar palms. About 37 species are possibly extinct or highly endangered. An island-focused project is appropriate which will include parks and protected areas and forest management that maintains some level of biodiversity.

3. Rescue other critically threatened species in Asia and Africa. The action plan identifies seven palms in this group; included is the possibly extinct Medemia palm of Egypt and Sudan. Medemia is not in cultivation anywhere. [Editors note: Medemia argun has been rediscovered in isolated oases in Sudan since this presentation was given and has been introduced into cultivation.]

4.    Indian and Pacific Ocean island palms. Island palm species are unique and merit individual attention as a group because of intense human populations pressures, threats posed by plant and animal introductions and the need to manage remaining forested habitats. Endemic island palm species are very important for biodiversity maintenance since so many are single-species genera (monotypic), like the double coconut in the Seychelles.

Successful conservation models developed for islands may also have applicability in continental tropical forests.

In closing, I want to leave you with three important points. First of all, the conservation of palm biodiversity is worth doing because of its intrinic value to the earth’s natural biological processes and to allow palm evolution to continue as it has been for about the last 65 million years (Upper Cretaceous).

Second of all, palm conservation is important because of the utility of the palm family. The coconut, the date palm, the African oil palm, the peach palm and the betel nut palm are all domesticated palms providing a wide array of commercial products for humankind. A longer list of semidomesticated and wild palms furnish subsistence food items, construction material and so on. Protecting wild palm populations therefore is of benefit to local peoples. An additional utilization-linked reason for palm conservation is to preserve the genetic resources of wild relatives of commercial palms for plant breeding purposes. The American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera), for example, is being utilized in breeding programs with the related African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis).

A third and final justification for palm conservation is a societal one. The human cultural component of the earth has a heritage associated with it which we esteem and honor by preserving objects and artifacts in museums for study and to permit future generations to see actual examples of our rich culture. We don’t discard antique furniture because we have detailed descriptions and photographs of the antiques; we want to and ought to preserve the actual antique furniture itself.

The biological component of the earth represents a heritage as well, and it is up to humankind to protect and present it for the future. I suspect that everyone here tonight has had the opportunity of going out into the forest and recognizing a palm they have grown and come to know well. It is a thrilling experience to see a palm in its native habitat. We might think of palms as antique furniture and their forest habitat as the restored house in which they can be most appreciated.

Through the interests and efforts of palm enthusiasts, palm societies and the IUCN palm specialist group, we can support and take actions to conserve as much of the world’s palm diversity as we possibly can. If we don’t do it, who will?

Dennis V. Johnson
Palm Tree Resources Worldwide
4324 Watterson Street
Cincinnati, OH 45227
September 1998

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