Genuine Collaboration: a Future Key to Botanic Garden Success

Ghillean T. Prance

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Home | Contents | Introduction | Collaboration | Financial Collaboration | Conclusions | Acknowledgement | References


During this congress we have heard of many examples of habitat destruction and species loss. There is no doubt now that there is a biodiversity crisis in the world and, since plants are the basis of life on Earth, it has become more urgent to protect them. This has given a new urgency to the work of botanic gardens and a new vision to which we must respond. The fact that representatives of so many gardens from so many countries are gathered together in Cape Town under the auspices of Botanic Gardens Conservation International indicates that we have made considerable progress and are responding to the challenge.

Each of our gardens has its own particular strengths, facilities and resources and in light of the magnitude of the task before us we are often frustrated by the things we don't have that would help us better to conserve the plant species of the world. It is therefore essential that we pool our efforts and resources to address the problems together as a single worldwide force for the survival of the green world. I have been asked to speak here on the topic of genuine collaboration and I do so with pleasure because I really do believe that it is the key to success in plant conservation. The development of BGCI from when it first met in the Canary Islands in 1985 up to the present is a progressive history of collaboration. In this congress one of the dominant themes is networking. Indeed we have one of the finest examples of a collaborative network here in South Africa in the Southern African Botanical Diversity Network (SABONET).

We have heard here about the networks of Colombian botanic gardens, Caribbean and Latin American botanic gardens, European botanic gardens and the US Centre for Plant Conservation that links 28 gardens. The 8 gardens of the National Botanical Institute of South Africa is also a fine example.



The Oxford English dictionary defines collaboration as 'to work jointly with especially on a literary or scientific project'. It also mentions a second meaning 'cooperate traitorously with an enemy'! I am definitely addressing the first issue because there are no frontiers in science nor in conservation. Collaboration is a biological principal that I have observed in nature so many times as I have studied pollination, dispersal of diaspores or other animal plant mutualisms.

For example, the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa Humb. & Bonpl.), which I have studied in great detail, is pollinated by canopy living Euglossine bees that depend on epiphytic orchids for another part of their life cycle, and dispersed by agoutis and squirrels which inhabit the forest floor (Mori & Prance, 1990a, b; Nelson et al., 1987; Prance & Mori, 1998). All of nature is bound together in these collaborative networks of interactions. I do not cite the above example just to promote collaboration, for nature is also full of the traitorous type of collaboration where predator eats prey or pathogens attack.

To think of the example of the Brazil nut reminds us that plants, like botanic gardens, don't live alone in the world, but rather depend on numerous other organisms for pollination, dispersal, protection or mycorrhizal relationships to obtain their essential nutrients and there are two important lessons to be learned from the case history of the Brazil nut:

firstly that in situ conservation to maintain biological interactions and evolution is the priority for conservation. This is reflected in the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the traditional separation between the two is breaking down as a more integrated approach to conservation is being developed, such as in the model of the US Centre for Plant Conservation (see Maunder 1993, 1994).

Secondly the example shows that collaboration for the conservation of plants must involve a much broader constituency than the core botanic garden community which is represented here. Successful future collaboration will involve local communities, zoos, scientific research organisations, ecological institutions etc.

Collaboration between different types of organisations is essential for successful conservation, because of the different skills and resources available in each institution involved. Collaboration in plant conservation is also forced upon us because of historic connections. It is estimated that about 50 plant species have survived in botanic gardens far from their native habitat for example, Sophora toromiro (Philippi) Skottsb. from Easter Island or Cosmos astrosanguineus, the chocolate flower, from Mexico.

However, the long-term conservation of rare and threatened plants can only be successfully carried out in situ in their native habitat and international collaboration is often the only way forward. In the case of both of the above examples excellent international inter institutional collaboration is underway to reintroduce them to their native habitats. These 'almost extinct' or 'living dead' sensu Janzen plants that survive in our gardens have largely hung on to life through good-luck rather than good planning, usually they are horticulturally amenable species. Some have been successfully reintroduced: however, for the majority there are fundamental problems with regard to lack of ecological data, taxonomic status, fertility problems etc. (For an overview of this see Maunder et al., 1998).

Collaboration as a way forward must cover many different aspects. It is not simply a matter of transporting a plant back from a distant botanic garden to its native habitat. One of the principal needs in many of the biodiverse countries or remote islands where so many plants are threatened is for practical training in the skills needed to practise conservation such as basic plant taxonomy, field identification, herbarium techniques or horticultural methods.

This type of capacity building is already a fundamental part of the work of both the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Here in South Africa SABONET is taking on a similar role. The Darwin Initiative which was a UK response to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit has become an important source of funding for capacity building. For example, recently it funded "the Darwin-National Museums of Kenya course in plant conservation techniques for East Africa", a joint initiative between the National Museums of Kenya and Kew.

This course was able to build on both the long established taxonomic activities of Kew in the region and the strength of the National Museums of Kenya. The course has led to the development of a regional plant conservation network through the participants from several nations that were brought together for the course. This collaborative effort has complemented the DFiD funded assistance with the design and development of the new Nairobi botanic garden. Projects of this nature which involve major collaboration leave a lasting scientific legacy, improved in-country facilities, and most importantly, improved local capacity.


Financial Collaboration

We have attended the openings of both a new Visitor Centre and a Research Centre at Kirstenbosch. This is an example of another type of collaboration with which we are also most familiar at Kew, that of putting together mixed funding to achieve our goals. The Kirstenbosch Conservatory was built with a mixture of Government, industrial and Botanical Society funding just as our recently restored Museum at Kew was supported by government, our national lottery and two private foundations. If we do not put together these collaborative packages our gardens and our conservation projects will not move forward.

Perhaps one of the ways of encouraging greater collaboration is to give a few examples where it is succeeding.

Examples of Collaborative Projects

1. St. Helena

The remote South Atlantic Island of St. Helena, whose nearest neighbour is South Africa, symbolises the fate of many oceanic biotas where centuries of uncontrolled grazing and forest loss has resulted in the almost complete loss of the original ecology. Some endemic plant species have survived in extremely small populations, for example Trochetiopsis melanoxylon, the St. Helena ebony or Commidendron rugosum, the scrubwood a member of the Asteraceae. Kew's work with St. Helena began in the 1980s with attempts to multiply these rare species for reintroduction. This soon developed into a much larger programme of sustainable development firstly and most importantly with the islanders themselves, but then involving the complimentary skills of the International Institution for Environment and Development (IIED), the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and the Zoological Society of London. This teamwork approach provided a good balance between skills in economic, social and environmental systems and it led to the production of a sustainable development strategy for the island (see Maunder et al. 1994, 1995).

In 1995 Kew was invited to draft a recovery plan for the endemic plants of the island. The plan identified 12 priority species for conservation management based on the results of field surveys undertaken together with the local Agriculture and Forestry Department. Nine of the species are "Critically Endangered" sensu IUCN (1994) and three are "Extinct in the Wild". Eight other species are now recovering following the control of feral livestock populations. Crucial to success of the plant conservation programme is the long-term protection of eight core habitat fragments that have survived the degradation by feral animals and invasive exotic species. Currently Kew is no longer involved in the team as it is now largely self-sufficient and setting its own agenda for action. This has now largely been adopted and parts funded by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). However, we continue to support them through political lobbying with the UK Foreign Office and through horticultural training for the conservation team, the latter another project which has been funded by the Darwin Initiative. The success of this project is its collaborative nature, with the work directly driven by the needs of the St. Helenans.

2. Mauritius

Together with other partners Kew has built on a previous project of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Mauritius (Maunder & Culham, 1997). We have Memoranda of Understanding with both the government of Mauritius and between our NGO partner in Mauritius, the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation and our UK partners the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and Fauna and Flora International (see Prance, 1997). This partnership brings with it many skills in both plant and animal science and conservation. As a result of having such a broad-based collaboration the consortium has been able to obtain a $1.2 million grant for biodiversity restoration from the Global Environmental Facility that was set up as a result of the Earth Summit. Kew was able to raise initial financial support for some components of the project through an appeal to the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens. This helped to provide training on the horticultural management of threatened plant species and habitat restoration. Since we also have a project to work on the 'Flore de Mascareigne', funded by the Indian Ocean Commission, we are also able to provide both taxonomic and specialist horticultural training to the Mauritius project. Through the weeding of fenced plots, the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation has secured wild populations of plants that were otherwise destined for extinction. In addition this has secured habitat for the recovery of threatened species of birds and reptiles. The success of the project, which has created relatively robust managed wild populations is attributable to the good collaboration between different organisations that brought together people with a wide range of complementary skills.

Our collaboration in the UK with Flora and Fauna International and the National Parks Trust of the British Virgin Islands has also led to obtaining a Darwin Initiative grant for the integration of national parks education and community development. Kew will provide training in species recovery and survey and monitoring techniques.

3. Plants of Northeastern Brazil

Since 1991 Kew has been collaborating with a large number of organisations in the arid region of northeastern Brazil where a programme called 'Plantas do Nordeste' has been installed. The slogan of the project is: 'Local plants for local people'. The project is run by a board of trustees that was established to manage it. The board consists of representatives from some of the many Brazilian institutions that are involved in the project. The participating institutions include University Departments, government and non-governmental institutions. The three main elements of the programme are biodiversity (to collect, identify and describe plant species), economic botany (to find ways in which to use local plants sustainably) and information (to spread the results of the work to other potential users). It is a successful multifaceted programme that is far too large to describe in detail here. Some of the projects include:

  1. The production of goat fodder plants in order to keep the goats in corals rather than freely wandering to destroy the mature vegetation. This project uses mainly fast growing nitrogen-firing legumes
  2. Nectar producing plants to increase bee-keeping and the production of honey in the region.
  3. The Production of medicines from local plants for use by local people who cannot afford to buy commercially produced pharmaceuticals. This project, the living pharmacy involves the use of about 50 rehabilitated street children as cultivators and sellers of the medicines through street theatre.
  4. The encouragement of the cultivation of everlasting dried flowers rather than the collection of some of these rare species from the wild.

Plantas do Nordeste (PNE) has received financial support both from the UK and Brazil. Recently the UK Department for International Development has granted £1.85 million for the informatics side to set up a plant information centre at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, but the Brazilian Research Council is contributing $500,000 a year. The success of PNE is because it is also a truly collaborative project where scientists who study biodiversity and economic botany work closely with grass roots organisations that are linked closely to local communities. The project provides information about how native plant resources can be better used and managed sustainably. It is an example of North/South collaboration which is an essential element of attaining our conservation goals. Because of the uneven spread of resources in the world and the fact that most biodiversity occurs in the less developed world, North/South collaboration is vital to our aims of conserving plants.



All three examples I have given of collaboration involve a lot of plant growing and Kew's role has been heavily involved in that aspect. This Congress has presented relatively little about botanic garden horticulture. Are we running the risk of developing a web of potential collaborations whilst not maintaining our real strength, the growing of plants? Our collaboration must invest in the core resource of botanic gardens - horticulturists.

This Congress has shown that botanic gardens are undertaking an extraordinarily wide range of conservation activities. However, I would like to introduce a word of caution: we cannot do it alone! For many of the conservation projects which we are involved in, and certainly in the three Kew examples I have given, we do not have all the required areas of expertise required nor the legal mandate. We must recognise that as botanic gardens we are only truly viable contributors to plant conservation if we work closely with national legislative structures and support the fundamental objective of in situ conservation, traditionally the remit of protected area authorities and other agencies.

The point of giving details about some of the collaborative projects in which Kew is involved is not to boast of our achievements, but rather to demonstrate that for successful conservation it is essential to collaborate. I could equally well have chosen examples from many of the other represented gardens here, especially the National Botanical Institute of South Africa which is involved in many collaborative ventures such as SABONET. As we look forward to the future and to a new millennium, if we want a future we will need to make every possible effort to collaborate with each other scientifically, horticulturally and politically. It is my hope that national biodiversity action plans Local Agendas 21, and international treaties such as the Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Trade in Endangered Species can be used positively to foster collaboration instead of just negatively to enforce controls. Genuine collaboration protects the interests of ones partner organisations rather than exploits them. The botanic gardens of the north, with their extensive collections and research facilities, cannot save biodiversity in isolation. The great challenge is to forge new scientific and financial relationships with the front-line gardens of the tropics. It is these institutions that will ultimately make the greatest contributions to conservation and the sustainable management of biodiversity. Collaboration is only genuine when it is two-way and non exploitative. The challenge that lies ahead to protect the plant species upon which all life depends is great. Let us all work together in harmony as a united force for plant conservation.



I thank Dr Michael Maunder for providing many helpful suggestions during the preparation of this paper.



Copyright 1999 NBI