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Red or dead

Robert J. O’Sullivan
14 January 2014
Blog team: 
Sandwich student Robert O’Sullivan describes his contribution to Kew's work delivering an assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species.


'Without plants, there is no life. The functioning of the planet, and our survival, depends on plants. The Strategy seeks to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity.'

This inspiring and far-reaching statement is the vision for the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). Target 2 of GSPC aims to deliver 'an assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, as far as possible, to guide conservation action' by 2020. By doing so it hopes to establish a baseline level for the current status of the world’s plants which can be used as a comparison point for future reassessment so that trends can be established and analysed.

Birds and mammals have been fully assessed for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List - in the case of birds, more than once but plants are still woefully behind. This state of affairs was anticipated by Sir Peter Scott - the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott - when commenting on one of the first Red Data Books on Angiosperms (flowering plants) compiled in 1970 by Dr Robert Melville, who worked here at Kew. He noted that 'so many species are rare and threatened, and so little is known about most of them, that the full treatment accorded to mammals and birds is never likely to be possible' (Scott, 1984).

GSPC Target 2 aims to prove this prediction wrong, but there is much work still to be done.

A preliminary analysis

So far about 58,494 conservation assessments - from National and Regional Red Lists, the IUCN Global Red List and literature and journal articles - have been compiled though Kew’s conservation assessment database for plants as a contribution towards GSPC target 2. This covers between 15% and 20% of all known plants. You can see the interim GSPC 2 list here.

Only about 5% of plants are on the global IUCN Global Red List (the most authoritative global system for classifying extinction risk) – about 18,291 species – a figure that includes some assessments that are more than 10 years old and in need of updating.

At the current rate - about 1,000 new assessments are added each year – an assessment of all known plant species is going to take another 300 years, so a significant increase in the rate at which assessments are processed is needed.

Additionally, the description of new species – also at the rate of about 1,000 per year – means that we may be facing a ‘Red Queen’ type scenario where, like Alice in Wonderland, we have to run as fast as we can merely to keep up with the rate of new discoveries.

Moreover, these new species are also often rare (or they would have been discovered earlier!) and so probably in need of conservation measures as soon as they are found. The need for conservation assessments does, however, mean that a lot of important data can be collected at the time the species itself is collected in the field.

The task

My main role during my year-long placement here at Kew is to collect, review and analyse the wealth of plant species conservation assessment data that Kew holds in its libraries and databases. It may be the case that as many as 60 – 70% of plants have had a conservation assessment at some stage, but we won’t know until we compile all this hidden data.

Many of these assessments are recorded in the National Red LIsts or Regional Red Data books, which can then be added to the National Red List website. This information can then be used to guide conservation action and to identify any gaps in conservation assessment coverage

The process

In many cases, such as the Seychelles Red Data Book completed in 1997, the assessments may record the only time certain species in an area have been formally assessed, so it’s important they are made available to as wide an audience as possible.

These assessments are entered into a botanical database called BRAHMS and each one is linked with its International Plant Names Index (IPNI) reference number to help fix it to a published name. The conservation status, the justification for the status and any other pertinent information such as proposed and current conservation measures are also entered.

In addition to books, a great deal of data is derived from electronic sources such as PDFs, Access Databases, Excel worksheets and websites. These often contain a variety of data organised in different ways and with different headings. In order to be able to compare, compile and analyse these data sets they are 'munged' into a standardised format ('mung' is a computing acronym standing for 'modified until no good') using a mixture of Visual Basic coding and various Excel formulas.

Once compiled, the assessments are imported into the BRAHMS database. For endemic species these national or regional assessments may then form the basis for a global assessment for inclusion into the global IUCN Redlist, and for non-endemics the data may help in augmenting existing information on species assessment status.

Many assessments are currently available only in books and so not easily accessible outside of specialist libraries like that at Kew.


Since my project started in September 2013 I’ve compiled about 16,000 assessments, of which over 50% fall into a threatened category, such as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. The data have come from various National Red Lists with a focus on areas with high levels of endemism and biodiversity including New Zealand, India, the Maltese Islands, the Seychelles, Rodrigues, Southern Africa and Malaysia.

Of these about 1,800 have been entered by hand resulting in not only a marked increase in my typing speed, but an insight into the many and varied threats to plants - goats seem to come up a lot! - and, unsurprisingly, habitat loss is often mentioned as a causative agent for species declines.

The myriad conservation methods that are carried out and the enormous amount of work that has been done over the decades by botanists, ecologists and conservationists to keep track of endangered and vulnerable species throughout the world is quite mind-boggling. It is essential that this is continued in order to achieve GSPC target 2 and maintain and, hopefully expand, current conservation and botanical works.

Goats - the bane of many a shrub

The future

There is still a long way to go to achieve Target 2 of GSPC – 'An assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, as far as possible, to guide conservation action' – but we are heading in the right direction and Kew is leading the way for plants as it has in the past and, hopefully, will continue to do into the future.

- Robert J. O’Sullivan -


Related links



  • Scott, P. et al. (1987) Red Data Books: the historical background. In The Road to Extinction: A Symposium Held by the Species Survival Commission (Madrid, 7 and 9 November, 1984) (Fitter, R. and Fitter,M., eds), pp. 1–5, IUCN



17 January 2014
This is important work, it seems amazing that it hasn't been done until now. Well done Kew.
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