South Africa is home to over 21,000 plant species, many unique vegetation types and one of the six Floristic Regions of the world, the Cape Floristic Region. It has an extraordinary level of plant endemism (plants that only occur in South Africa) at 67% and is one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries. Three of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots are in South Africa, areas defined as being exceptionally rich in species while also being under threat, having lost a large proportion of their natural habitat. Sadly, 14% of South Africa’s plant species are under threat of extinction (SANBI 2019).
Seed banking is helping to ensure the survival of South Africa’s diverse plant species through long-term safe storage of seeds in case of loss in the wild and by providing seeds for ongoing species conservation and habitat restoration projects. This programme, Developing the National Seed Collection of South Africa, builds on the successful Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, which has already banked over 7500 South African seed collections, representing over 4200 species. Starting in 2020, funding has been generously provided for three years through two international conservation programmes, The Global Tree Seed Bank Programme and the Threatened Biodiversity Hotspots Programme.
In order to cover the diverse habitats across South Africa, seed collection work is led by four Conservation Officers based at SANBI’s Botanical Gardens around the country, in Limpopo, Pretoria, Eastern Cape and Cape Town. The programme has funded two new vehicles, adding to the two vehicles already in place, enabling access to fieldwork for all four teams. The collection teams include SANBI staff and volunteers, who collect seed from both rare and common plants, targeting threatened, endemic and useful species including crop wild relatives. The seeds are processed at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and stored in the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. SANBI is in the process of developing a National Seed Bank where the collections will be stored in the future. The collections and their data are managed by the Collections Officer, a new post funded through the programme and based in Cape Town. Seed biology research is an integral part of the programme, and funding is available for laboratory equipment as well as training and research opportunities in South Africa and UK for SANBI seed conservation staff.