The Conservation Program at the National Tropical Botanical Garden is focused on protecting and conserving tropical plants. Scientists now believe that more than one-third of all tropical plants are threatened with extinction. To address this problem a number of organizations are working together to identify the global hot-spots of extinction and have implemented programs to protect these valuable plants before they are lost forever. Hawai‘i and the greater Pacific region are considered hot-spots of extinction, and it is here that the NTBG is focusing it conservation program.
Because of their geographically isolated locations, the plant species that evolved in Hawai‘i and many other tropical areas over millions of years are highly endemic (found only in one location). In Hawai‘i, nearly 1,300 endemic species have been described. Of these, more than 100 today are considered to be extinct, with an additional 273 classified by Federal standards as Threatened and Endangered, and 85 as Candidate species. The situation is similar throughout the Pacific and in many other tropical regions. The underlying cause of the decline of endemic plant species is destruction of their habitat and the introduction of alien invasive species by human beings.
While the challenges of protecting endemic species are enormous, the NTBG is also very concerned about preserving culturally important plant species. Many of these are cultivars that were developed over thousands of years by indigenous people living on the islands of Oceania. Scholars are only now beginning to understand the importance and value of many of these ethnobotanical plants, some of which may even hold promise for solving global crises such as world hunger and disease.
Protecting ethnobotanical plants and endemic plants call for very different strategies. Preservation of ethnobotanical plants requires a thorough understanding that can only be achieved through in-depth surveys of the indigenous people who are knowledgeable about the plants and who are willing to help botanists identify and collect them. Once identified and collected, the plants can be grown in ex situ collections, which serve as germplasm repositories that can be drawn on in the event these cultivars are lost in their native countries. NTBG has several important conservation collections of ethnobotanical species and cultivars, some of which include the world’s largest collection of breadfruit and smaller collections of taro, banana, coconut, and sugar cane.
The most effective long-term response to preserve endemic plant populations in Hawai‘i and elsewhere is to protect their habitats and to manage threatened plants in those habitats. However, for many species this response cannot be implemented quickly enough to prevent extinction. For this reason, conservation activities necessarily extend beyond in situ habitat management to incorporate a coordinated strategy that integrates conservation with education, scientific research, curation of living collections, and propagation of at-risk plants ex situ.
Discovery of rare endemic species and collection of seeds and other materials for propagation and ex situ conservation has been a core part of NTBG’s effort since the Garden was founded. Our staff of field botanists have made thousands of collecting expeditions throughout Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands. Adapting to the sometimes extremely challenging habitats in which they work, our field biologists have pioneered rough-terrain and high-cliff climbing techniques to gather seeds of rare species, some of them now extinct in the wild, for use in reintroduction efforts.
Over the past 20 years, species that were previously unknown to science have been discovered by NTBG botanists and roughly two dozen species in Hawai‘i that were thought to be extinct have been rediscovered by these intrepid scientists. The discovery of unknown species is central to conservation efforts, as species cannot be saved if we do not know that they exist, where they are located, and that they are endangered.
The work of the conservation staff includes a wide range of activities that support its primary plant conservation strategies, including projects to control alien species, watershed management, ecological monitoring, and conservation education. Since it was established on Kaua‘i in 1970, the National Tropical Botanical Garden has been a leader in the conservation of plants in Hawai`i and the greater Pacific area.
Data as of August 2006