Many years ago, as a teenager, I took a job working in my local zoo. Voluntarily at first and then as a member of staff; I was a zoo keeper. It was the job I had dreamed of doing since I had read the books of my all time conservation hero; Gerald Durrell.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that some of the animals at the zoo were there for the purpose of ex-situ (away from their natural habitat) conservation and that the goal for their being in captivity was to eventually build up enough animals to release back into their natural environment. All this was, and still is, managed through a studbooking system which was overseen by an organisation called the World association of zoos and aquariums (WAZA).
It seemed so practical to me that such schemes existed and I got actively involved in the studbook for the Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). I had, admittedly, been indoctrinated by the master of zoo animal conservation; Mr Durrell.
Decades later and I no longer work with animals but my passion for nature has not waned. Now my focus is plants and I am lucky to work with many endangered species. One thing, however, that has struck me is that there doesn’t seem to be that same ‘joined up’ approach to ex-situ conservation in the botanic garden and horticultural world.
Certainly plenty are doing amazing things to conserve the most threatened species of plants. Yet that community that works toward a shared goal for individual species is missing or at best ad-hock. When you speak with the horticulturists growing these threatened plant species they tell you that they know they need to be propagating more of the plants in question and that the garden they work for has brought the plants into cultivation for the purpose of protecting them. They also say that they haven’t got a pollination schedule or that all the plants that have been produced are clones of the parent plant. Few of the species grown have a known number of genetically distinct individuals in cultivation and often the provenance (the specific location a plant came from) isn’t known either.
I am certainly not saying that ex-situ plant conservation is still in the dark ages and with recent work done on species like the Sink Hole Cycad (Zamia decumbens) conservationists are starting to gain a much stronger insight into cultivated plant conservation genetics. I am saying that we need to take a leaf out of the WAZA book by starting to apply a worldwide, linked up approach to the matter in hand. The first studbook for an animal in captivity for conservation was set up in 1932 for the European Bison which puts our endangered flora over 80 years behind the world’s fauna.
The first steps are already being taken BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) already hold a database of the plants grown in botanic gardens wordwide, Montgomery botanical centre’s guidance on ‘Building living plant collections to support conservation‘ and schemes like the Plant Heritage‘s National Collections being taken on by international botanic garden organisations we are well on the way to a more collaborative method of international ex-situ plant conservation.
I feel it’s time we took the next step!
We need a method of deciding what the priorities are for species that are part of ex-situ projects; a way of knowing where each individual is and a way of ensuring maximum genetic diversity within the worldwide ex-situ populations of a species. In short we need to be learning from the zoo world’s book and ‘studbooking’ plants.
I have my own ideas about how Plant studbooking could work but I am sure that solving this problem does not have a simple solution. I am also sure that a solution needs to be found as soon as possible if some of our most endangered species are to have a future.