Australasian Plant Conservation
Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 18(2) Setember - November 2009, p 2-3
Botanic gardens as
21st Century enablers of plant diversity conservation for human welfare
Stephen D. Hopper
Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.
The development of botanic gardens is a
global growth industry. Of the more than 2500 significant botanic gardens
around the world, half have been created since 1950. Australia conforms to this
Why is this so? Clearly, communities value
and consider it worthwhile investing in botanic gardens—for the local
community’s enjoyment and recreation, for tourism, for conservation, for
education and for ongoing scientific discovery. This is healthy, essential and
timely, enabling better conservation and use of plant diversity for human
welfare in a time of rapid global change.
Indeed, I suggest that at no other point in
history have plants and botanic gardens been more important to the future of
humans, and of life on Earth. If this contention is correct, it is all the more
distressing that, while botanic gardens continue to diversify and thrive,
biodiversity has taken such a hard hit globally over recent decades, despite
growing awareness of its decimation. Few would question that an extinction
crisis is underway. Why is more not done to address this crisis? Is this due to
poor understanding, lack of engagement or lack of commitment and sufficient
action? What can botanic gardens do?
The world’s population is not lacking a
broad understanding of the natural world. Such public awareness owes much to
decades of brilliant documentaries by Sir David Attenborough and countless
other enthusiasts for natural history. Something else must account for the
increasingly alarming plight of life on Earth, and apparent indifference to the
Of course, not all are indifferent.
Australia has many fine examples of work aimed at conserving its biological
jewels: magnificent national parks and nature reserves; extensive state
forests; private land with wild vegetation retained for posterity by
enlightened owners; and road verges similarly burgeoning with unique plants and
animals persisting on slivers across the landscape.
Displays of native plants at Mount Annan Botanic Garden. Living plant collections help educate the public about the
importance of plant biodiversity.
Photo: Murray Fagg.
Many threatened Australian species have been
saved from extinction by the good work of committed conservation biologists,
land managers and others. Seeds of native plants are being collected, stored
and used as never before to repair damaged landscapes.
At the same time, the impact of people and
choices in land use detrimental to biodiversity and to ourselves are to be seen
everywhere, from extensive clearing for agriculture, infrastructure and
ever-expanding cities, to the drying of climate associated with global warming.
Water sources are being taxed to the limit. Applications of fertilisers are
acidifying the land, poisoning plants and other organisms, and causing toxic
algal blooms in wetlands.
Salinity due to excessive destruction of
native vegetation silently consumes vast areas of Australia’s agricultural
lands, including towns and roads as well as farmland and bushland alike.
Dieback disease spread by moving infected soil is destroying more native plants
than in any other region on Earth. Invasive weeds are more numerous and
malignant to native plants and animals. Feral animals such as foxes and rabbits
abound, the direct consequences of contemporary life styles.
We are literally poisoning our own nest,
knowingly or not, silently, in what has been, and could continue to be, a
At some point, soon, such approaches to land
and water management must turn the corner. Green economics is now receiving
serious mainstream attention across the world, no longer regarded as a catch
cry of marginal extremists. We must develop a new paradigm for sustainable
living over the next decade or two. The economics point more and more clearly
in this direction. The environmental signals do likewise. The need is evident.
It’s now time for concerted action, in all walks of life. Many are already
grasping this nettle, especially young people who have most to lose and most to
gain. While change is sometimes difficult, there are also superb opportunities
and benefits for all if we seize the day.
Biodiversity, especially plant life, offers
great potential to help with solutions to the inescapable environmental challenges
we all face. Plants absorb carbon, and therefore help cool the world. They
provide oxygen, so you and I can breathe. They provide food at a time where the
word ‘crisis’ is now being used for the supply of staples that feed the world.
Plants provide filters in the landscape for clean water. They enrich and modify
hostile soils. They are a source of medicines for human health; quinine from
cinchona bark and now Artemesia annua remain the best
defences against the world’s greatest killing disease—malaria. Some Australian
plants are known to have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity.
Does the plant biodiversity of Australia matter? Absolutely. As one of the world’s great repositories of biological
novelty, many solutions to sustainable living undoubtedly lie quiescent and as
yet unrevealed in remnant patches of native vegetation.
We know from Aboriginal people that there is
a rich array of useful foods, medicines and culturally significant plants and
animals found in Australia and nowhere else on Earth. The Australian native
flora has already given the world edible crops such as macadamia nuts,
sandalwood for aromatic oils, some of the most durable hardwoods for furniture
making on Earth, and many plants adapted to saline habitats for land reclamation.
New plants for perennial cropping sit largely unrecognised at our doorstep.
Wildflowers of exquisite beauty and intrinsic interest still adorn remnant
vegetation across the nation. Animals of great antiquity and such novel biology
If we are to retain and restore the Earth’s
vegetated carbon sinks to help minimise global warming, all people must look to
their own backyards and manage biodiversity as though they were here to stay on
this planet, in their place, living lives enriched by biodiversity. Australians
bear a special responsibility as custodians of one of the most important
biodiversity regions on Earth.
Will we save it? I sincerely hope we do. We
cannot afford to let such riches slip through our fingers, for
self-preservation as much as for the intrinsic interest and wonderment for
which the Australian biodiversity has become internationally renowned.
How? By valuing, celebrating and investing
in biodiversity. A step change in conservation action and financial resources
for biodiversity is needed. Investing the cost of a few jumbo jets in
Australian plant biodiversity over the next few decades would reap
irreplaceable long-term rewards.
Such investment has already started, ranging
from substantial work and contributions from government, business and wealthy
individuals through to those of more modest resources establishing native plant
gardens in their backyards or helping as volunteers with conservation
organisations. We must ensure that this work continues and accelerates.
As the world moves through the present
financial crisis, in a new era of environmental challenge, the opportunity
exists to rethink our world and ways of living. Great historical moments such
as the abolishment of slavery or democratising South Africa demonstrate we are
capable of enlightened transformation as a global society, despite the economic
and political difficulties. We owe it to ourselves, our families and the future
to ensure today’s new deal for the environment and biodiversity becomes such a
I would conclude by simply saying that
botanic gardens have a pivotal role to play now and in the future in this challenging
enterprise, from scientific discovery, documenting and demonstrating the value
of plant life, through seed banking, to helping restore damaged carbon sinks
and plant diversity essential for a sustainable future. We need to harness the
strong community interest in botanic gardens towards helping conserve plant
biodiversity. If botanic gardens can’t achieve this, who will?