New effort to save Mediterranean plants

Posted: 14 November 2005

The natural beauty that draws thousands of visitors to the islands of the Mediterranean every year is fast being eroded and many of its 25,000 native plants are disappearing, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) warned yesterday.

Calendula maritima, Sicily, IUCN
Calendula maritima, Sicily, IUCN
Endemic to Sicily and some surrounding islets, on the mainland Calendula maritima, or Sea Marigold, is only found in the Trapani region. This species has been categorized as Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List Criteria. On the main island of Sicily, the population growing in the well-managed nature reserve "Saline di Trapani e Paceco" is threatened by plans to expand the nearby harbour. The loss of this population would diminish the species' gene pool.
The region is one of the world's 34 biodiversity 'hotspots', and some 60 per cent of its flowering plants and ferns are endemic to the Mediterranean basin - they are found nowhere else in the world.

To try to prevent further destruction, IUCN has published a new conservation tool The Top 50 Mediterranean Island Plants. This handbook was launched yesterday at the 14th meeting of the Barcelona Convention on Protection of the Mediterranean Sea.

It lays out a conservation strategy for species from the familiar hyacinth, carnation, and violet families, along with less known, intriguingly-named plants such as moon trefoil, Lefkara milkvetch, Troodos rockcress, and Casey's larkspur.

The handbook aims to reverse the decline of these natural treasures by helping policy makers in the respective countries take appropriate decisions to protect their natural heritage. It is available in English and French, and the factsheets covering islands where Spanish, Italian and Greek are spoken have been translated accordingly.

5,000 islands

The Mediterranean basin contains nearly 5,000 islands ranging greatly in size, many of which are home to an exceptionally diverse flora.But over the past few decades, intensive agriculture, infrastructure development, urbanisation and mass tourism have wreaked havoc on natural habitats.

Rapid population growth, climate change and the spread of alien invasive plants have also eliminated many native species and many more are on the point of extinction. Endemic species are often highly localised with a small number of individuals, making them particularly susceptible to extinction. Any major disturbance such as fire or construction work could wipe them out.

The 'Top 50' presented in the book have been selected from these many rare and threatened species. It outlines why they are threatened, what is being done to protect them, and what more is needed to prevent them being lost forever.

The book emphasizes the need for on-site conservation rather than cultivation and reintroduction, as this is complicated and expensive. It is far more efficient to protect plants where they naturally occur and maintain "insurance" populations for worst-case scenarios.

Only about half of the Top 50 species are found in protected areas and many of these are not being managed adequately. "Protected areas are an important tool in conserving entire ecological communities, not just the Top 50 species," says Bertrand de Montmollin, Chair of the Mediterranean Island Plant Specialist Group of IUCN's Species Survival Commission. "However, monitoring the conservation status of specific species can serve as an indicator for how well we are managing these areas."

Many more species than those listed in the booklet need urgent conservation action. The Mediterranean Island Plant Specialist Group, together with partners and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation, continues to identify threatened species in the region and propose further conservation action.

Source: IUCN