New study shows one fifth of the world’s plants are under threat of extinction

A global analysis of extinction risk for the world's plants, conducted by Kew together with the Natural History Museum, London and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has revealed that the world’s plants are as threatened as mammals, with one in five of the world’s plant species threatened with extinction.

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29 Sep 2010

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One fifth of the world’s plants are under threat of extinction.

The study is a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world’s estimated 380,000 plant species is known; announced as governments are to meet in Nagoya, Japan in mid-October 2010 to set new targets at the United Nations Biodiversity Summit.
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For the first time we have a clear global picture of extinction risk to the world’s known plants. This report shows the most urgent threats and the most threatened regions. This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human-induced habitat loss.

Professor Stephen Hopper, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Introducing the Sampled Red List Index for plants

Scientists from Kew, the Natural History Museum and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Specialist Groups carried out the Sampled Red List Index assessments, a representative sample of the world’s plants, in response to the United Nations' International Year of Biodiversity and the 2010 Biodiversity Target.

The work relied heavily on the vast repository of botanical information held in Kew’s Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, which includes some eight million preserved plant and fungal specimens; on specimens held in the Natural History Museum’s own extensive herbarium of six million specimens; on digital data from other sources; and on collaboration with Kew’s network of partners worldwide. Browse Kew's example plant profiles.

What else does the research tell us about plants?

Kew’s Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, says: “This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human-induced habitat loss.

“For the first time we have a clear global picture of extinction risk to the world’s known plants. This report shows the most urgent threats and the most threatened regions. In order to answer crucial questions like how fast are we losing species and why, and what we can do about it, we need to establish a baseline so that we have something against which to measure change. The Sampled Red List Index for Plants does exactly that by assessing a large sample of plant species that are collectively representative of all the world’s plants.”

He adds, “The 2020 biodiversity target that will be discussed in Nagoya is ambitious, but in a time of increasing loss of biodiversity it is entirely appropriate to scale up our efforts. Plants are the foundation of biodiversity and their significance in uncertain climatic, economic and political times has been overlooked for far too long.

The importance of plants to us and the planet

Agrostis trachychlaena - photo by Niek Gremmen
Agrostis trachychlaena is rated Endangered (EN) according to IUCN Red List criteria. Photo by Niek Gremmen. 

“We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear – plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we. Having the tools and knowledge to turn around loss of biodiversity is now more important than ever and the Sampled Red List Index for Plants gives conservationists and scientists one such tool.”

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says, “This report comes at an important time in the lead up to the major international biodiversity meeting in Nagoya next month. It is deeply troubling that a fifth of the world’s plants are facing extinction because of human activity. Plant life is vital to our very existence providing us with food, water, medicines, and the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“We must take steps now to avoid losing some of these important species and the UK will show leadership as we look to make progress towards a framework for tackling the loss of the Earth’s plant and animal species.”

The study revealed

  • About one third of the species (33%) in our sample are insufficiently known to carry out an assessment. This demonstrates the scale of the task facing botanists – many plants are so poorly known that we still don't know if they are endangered or not.
  • Of almost 4,000 species that have been carefully assessed, over one fifth (22%) are classed as Threatened.
  • Plants are more threatened than birds, as threatened as mammals and less threatened than amphibians or corals.
  • Gymnosperms (the plant group including conifers and cycads) are the most endangered group.
  • The most threatened habitat is tropical rain forest. The current rate of loss of tropical forest accounts for 20% of global carbon emissions.
  • Most threatened species are found in the tropics.
  • The most threatening process is man-induced habitat loss, mostly the conversion of natural habitats for agriculture or livestock use.

Use our interactive map and charts to delve deeper into the data.

A new tool to monitor the world's plant life

The Sampled Red List Index for Plants is part of a worldwide effort to create a tool to monitor the changing status of the world’s major groups of plants, fungi and animals. In the future, the project will involve reassessments at regular intervals which will chart the changing fortunes of the world’s plants; much like a stock exchange index shows the ups and downs in the value of shares. This will highlight where and what conservation action is needed to protect plants. However, funding is needed in order to continue this important work. Find out how you can support Kew's work.

Dypsis brevicaulis
Dypsis brevicaulis - This dwarf palm from Madagascar is threatened by forest destruction. It is only known from three sites, and fewer than fifty plants have been found in the wild.

How it was done

7,000 plant species drawn from the five major groups of plants were included in the study: bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), pteridophytes (these are land plants, such as ferns, that produce neither flowers nor seeds and reproduce via spores), gymnosperms (such as conifers and cycads), monocotyledonss (one of the major groups of flowering plants including orchids and the economically important grass and palm families) and legumes (the pea and bean family), as representative of the other flowering plants. Both common and rare species were assessed in order to give an accurate picture of how plants are faring around the world. Use Kew's interactive chart to compare the level of threat facing different plant groups.

As the task of assessing the threat to the world’s plants (perhaps as many as 380,000 species) would present a much larger challenge than the assessments of threats to birds (9,998 species), mammals (4,000 species) or amphibians (6,433 species), a sampled approach was adopted where 1,500 species were randomly selected from each of the five major groups of land plants. Simulation modelling from the complete IUCN Red List assessments of birds and amphibians confirmed that 1,500 species for each group of plants would provide a representative view of plants overall.

Interactive maps and charts

Find out more about plants at risk | Browse Kew's example plant profiles

Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species

We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.

Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.

Adopt a seed for just £25 | Save a plant species outright

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