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Report reveals wild plant hotspots

More than 200 areas across North Africa and the Middle East have been identified as wild plant hotspots, a report revealed yesterday.

The research lists 207 places which are internationally important for the plants they contain, including 33 in Syria, 20 in Lebanon, 20 in Egypt, 21 in Algeria, 13 in Tunisia and five in Libya.

Three-quarters of the “important plant areas” contain species that only grow in that region or country and sites which contained more than 20 species restricted to a small geographical area were identified in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria.

One of the hotspots identified in the report by UK-based conservation group Plantlife, WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was Al Jabel Al Akhdar in Libya, an important plant area close to war-torn Benghazi with some 1,400 species of plants.

The organisations said the information, based on rapid assessments by botanists and scientists from across the region, would help focus and prioritise conservation work.

Many of the areas are in the middle of political instability or conflict but the report said that in the long term, natural resources and wildlife areas would be vital for the health and livelihoods of local people.

The report said the important plant areas were “not an optional extra and neither is their conservation”.

It said: “They support the livelihoods of many people and provide undervalued services such as water and flood control, carbon capture, the prevention of desertification and a reservoir of genetic species and diversity; all critically important for the Mediterranean region.”

The main threats to the plant-rich areas include over-grazing, which affects two-thirds of the sites identified, deforestation, development for tourism, intensive agriculture and unsustainable collection of the plants for medicine and cooking.

The report called for the areas to be incorporated into protected areas where possible and targeted for conservation action and projects which promoted sustainable forestry and agriculture and for local people to be involved in conservation efforts.

Elizabeth Radford, Plantlife’s international programme manager, who co-ordinated the project, said the findings would help channel funding from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, which invests in wildlife hotspots around the world, into preserving the plant-rich areas.

She said: “There’s phenomenal plant diversity in the Mediterranean, and if we don’t protect it we will be losing species right, left and centre.

“And a lot of these plants are linked very much to human livelihoods.”

While many of the areas studied are now gripped by war or political upheaval, Ms Radford said that, when the conflict ends, “securing people’s livelihoods will be top of the agenda”.

She said there were serious economic repercussions if grasslands, forest and other habitats were not preserved, with many local people relying on plants for grazing, collecting medicines from the wild, and for potential eco-tourism.

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