13 April 2017

Putting Tropical Important Plant Areas on the map

Kew scientist Colin Clubbe reveals the first area to formally qualify as a Tropical Important Plant Area (TIPA), which was identified during a workshop held in the British Virgin Islands.

The plants of the Palm house growing around a pathway through the greenery

Plants under threat

Wild plants across the world are facing increasing threats and there is an urgency to identify the most important areas for plant diversity in order to help focus our conservation work and to prioritise the use of finite resources. 

In partnership with Plantlife International, Kew launched the Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) programme in 2015. Identifying sites that are the most important for plants is a key strategic output in Kew’s Science Strategy 2015–2020.

We have undertaken a world-wide consultation to review the criteria used to identify Important Plant Areas (IPAs) across the world, including in the Tropics (TIPAs). As a result of this consultation, supported by discussions and testing, we have revised the criteria and this work has just been published as an open access article in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation (Darbyshire et al.2017). 

Working with local partners, initially in seven countries in the tropics, we are rolling these criteria out across our network in a series of workshops and related activities to implement our TIPAs programme.

The TIPAs programme gets underway in the Caribbean

The first area to secure funding to start a TIPAs project was the British Virgin Islands (BVI): the UK Overseas Territory in the Caribbean. We secured funds from HSBC to support a two-year programme to work with our long-term collaborator in BVI, The National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands: the statutory body responsible for terrestrial conservation in the territory. The Trust are keen to work with us to identify the most important sites for plants in the British Virgin Islands and to ensure that they are adequately protected for future generations. We jointly ran a workshop in June 2016 to launch the project and introduce the concepts involved with characterising these sites (Newton, 2016). 

Since this workshop, more fieldwork has been completed to fill key data gaps. This enabled us to get together again for a second workshop in February 2017, to start to identify and map a network of Tropical Important Plant Areas for BVI. 

The first TIPA

We’ve always known that the island of Anegada is a special place in the BVI archipelago (Clubbe et al. 2004). Of more than 100 islands and keys that comprise the BVI archipelago, Anegada is the only island composed entirely of limestone and is a raised coral atoll. The remaining islands are all volcanic in origin.  

Anegada supports a distinctive suite of plant species, including Senna polyphylla var. neglecta, a beautiful small legume shrub which is unique to Anegada. We have assessed this species as Critically Endangered using the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: the global standard for identifying those plants that are the most threatened with extinction (IUCN, 2012). We have also made a substantial seed collection of S. polyphylla var. neglecta which is in long-term storage at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst. 

Anegada supports eight other globally threatened species including Vachellia anegadensis, Metastelma anegadense, Leptocereus quadricostatus and Varronia rupicola, all evaluated as Endangered and on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Applying the Important Plant Areas criteria

It was only when we started to apply the IPA criteria that we realised how special Anegada is. IPAs can be identified using three criteria:

Criterion A deals with globally threatened species.
Criterion B deals with botanical richness, emphasising species of particular concern, including plants of conservation importance and other economically useful and culturally important plants.
Criterion C deals with threatened habitats.

Anegada qualified under all three criteria, highlighting not only its importance for the BVI, but also its global importance as the first TIPA. 

What’s next?

This is only the start of the process and we will be reconvening in October to complete the network of sites and continue to work with the BVI Government on securing the long term future for its superb plant diversity and the sites that hold this biological heritage.

This work is supported by HSBC.


Clubbe, C., Gillman, M., Acevedo-Rodriguez, P. & Walker, R. (2004). Abundance, distribution and conservation significance of regionally endemic plant species on Anegada, British Virgin Islands. Oryx 38(3), 342-346.

Darbyshire, I., Anderson, A., Asatryan, A., Byfield, A., Cheek, M., Clubbe, C., Ghrabi , Z., Harris, T.,  Heatubun, C.D., Kalema, J., Magassouba, S., McCarthy, B., Milliken, W., de Montmollin, B., Nic Lughadha, E., Onana , J.M., Saïdou, D., Sârbu, A., Shrestha, K. & Radford, E.A. (2017). Important Plant Areas: revised selection criteria for a global approach to plant conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation DOI 10.1007/s10531-017-1336-6

IUCN. (2012). IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1. Second edition. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN.

RGB Kew (2015). A Global resource for Plant and Fungal Knowledge: Science Strategy 2015-2020. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Willis, K.J. (ed.) 2016. State of the World’s Plants 2016. Report. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.