The International Plant Conservation Programmes of the Threatened Plants Unit of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre

Kerry S. Walter

Threatened Plants Unit, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK.


Accurate and up­to­date information is needed to make sound conservation and resource management decisions. This information is required at a variety of levels: taxonomic (threatened species, species of economic importance), geographic (species distributions, areas of high endemism, managed areas), ecological (habitats), political (trade, human impact) and management (in situ and ex situ conservation measures), among others. The Threatened Plants Unit (TPU) manages information at several of these levels as part of the global databases of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. It is unique in managing such a series of overview databases, and its activities complement and provide a regional and global context tor the conservation data sets built up by countries to produce the approximately 400 Red Data Books and Red Data Lists that have been published.

TPU currently tracks distribution, conservation, and taxonomic data on 65 000 taxa (species, subspecies, and varieties) of higher plants, 24 000 of which are threatened at world level. Information is kept on the plants' scientific and common names, their IUCN Red Data Book categories at the world level, their world-wide distribution and IUCN category at the country (or major sub­country) level, as well as data sources for each piece of information. The central nomenclatural file is linked to 98 000 distribution records, and all parts of the system are linked to the 16 000­record data source file. Records are kept for 18 000 genera, all families of higher plants, and all countries and regions of the world. Commonly used synonyms are also tracked.

Conservation status listing are regularly produced; generally these are produced for all species in a geographic area (country, region, or continent) in a taxonomic group (genus, family) or in a combination of these criteria. Also, thematic outputs are produced, such as plants covered by any CITES appendix, or tropical timber species, or plants of oceanic islands etc.

The data is held in a relational database application called BG­BASE, also in wide use in botanic gardens around the world. The application is based on Revelation, a variable­length field database management system.

The Rationale and Structure of the TPU Programme

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the severe plight of many of the Earth's species and natural habitats. The electronic and publishing media are full of statements about the state of the Earth's environment ­ many of these statements are misleading, contradictory, or lack a factual basis.

As has been rightly pointed out by several speakers over the past few days, including the keynote addresses of Professors Prance and Heywood, the problem is a very serious one ­ but just how serious is it? How can we tell how many threatened species there are in a country, in a region, for the world? How can we tell how effective the Protected Areas Network is in protecting these species? Or how do we determine what the international trade is in a particular endangered species of plant or animal, or of a whole genus or family, or of a country? How can the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) achieve its stated goal of having sustainable tropical timber production by the year 2000? How do the World Bank, the United Nations, the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international funding agencies, set priorities for spending their conservation dollars? What are the world's most endangered habitats in terms of the species that comprise them? Where are the centres of diversity for plants around the world? These and many other questions can be answered, if only crudely, by maintaining global overview databases on threatened species, on protected areas, on trade, and on habitats. It is in the context of these sorts of questions that I wish to talk to you about the information management activities of the World Conservation Centre (WCMC), and specifically of its Threatened Plants Unit (TPU).

This paper attempts to show that the various database activities discussed in other papers at this Congress are important not only for the botanic garden in question for its own internal curatorial activities, but also in a larger, national, regional, or international context.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre is a non­profit institution housed in Cambridge, UK. It is a joint venture between three partners ­ the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). WCMC acts as a primary information management organization and as an information repository for these three international programmes. These three partners do not control WCMC's activities, although each is represented on its Board, but they do provide a portion of the overall operating budget.

WCMC's staff number just over 70, approximately one-half of whom are graduate or PhD-level biologists, and they are divided into several working groups or units. It is the activities of the Threatened Plants Unit that are of most relevance to the topics under consideration in this Congress, and I will confine most of my comments to this area of activity.

The Threatened Plants Unit started its life as the Threatened Plants Committee of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, the activities of this group outgrew the level of support that Kew could provide, and it became part of the Conservation Monitoring Centre of IUCN. In the mid 1980s, WWF and UNEP joined IUCN in supporting what then became the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, although TPU remained housed at Kew until three years ago when it joined its sister units in Cambridge.

The original idea was to determine which species of plants were threatened at the global level, a central task even today, a quarter of a century later. The original work was done using cards as this was, of course, before the days of easily accessible, affordable computing. In the early 1980s, a Wang minicomputer was purchased to handle the data­ and word­processing needs of WCMC, and this computing system was used until 1990 when all plant data was moved to BG­BASE, a relational database designed initially to handle the plant records needs of botanic gardens around the world. (In fact, the Wang is still in use to handle the data for several of the other units.)

Data was gathered from published and unpublished literature, as well as through an extremely important and active network which grew to over 4000 people and institutions in virtually every country of the world. This network grew to include many of the world's botanic gardens, and out of the international coordinating work done initially within TPU grew a separate entity known as BGCS and, more recently, BGCI. WCMC and BGCI enjoy close institutional and informational links, even though we are no longer both at Kew.

From the earliest days, it was considered essential to keep an audit trail of where various bits of information came from, and so data sources were linked on the hand­written cards and later in the computing systems employed by TPU. In fact, the resulting file of computerized data sources, now numbering just over 15 500 records, represents the world's largest computerized plant conservation bibliography. A list of some 10 000 of these data sources was published two years ago as a joint venture between WCMC and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (There are an estimated 20 000 more data sources in hard copy within TPU's files that have not yet been computerized, due to lack of staff and time.)

In 1978, TPU published the first Red Data Book for plants. This book listed an arbitrarily selected 250 species of conservation concern throughout the world, and set the stage for the application of the so­called IUCN Red Data Book categories (or simply the IUCN categories) for plants, as well as for animals. Since the publication of this first Red Data Book in 1978, some 400 Red Data Books and Lists for plants have been published by governments and NGOs around the world.

At that point, no one really knew how many threatened plants there were in the world. Today, we still do not have an accurate and complete tally, of course, but the number of plants that we track within TPU has grown from a few hundred in the early 1980s to over 65 500 species today. This represents almost a quarter of all described higher plants.

Interaction between TPU and national and regional programmes

TPU builds and maintains global overview databases that support and complement the national and regional databases now developed or being developed around the world. Overview databases inherently have less information about a particular entity than do databases maintained locally; this is both appropriate and financially necessary ­ our monetary and staffing constraints do not allow us to maintain exceptionally rich data sets on a particular species, habitat, protected area, or country, but by maintaining comparable data on a huge variety of species, habitats, protected areas, and countries, and by maintaining strong bibliographic databases we can address the questions raised above.

WCMC supports the free and ready exchange of data, and our data are freely available to those requesting it and for whom it will be of value. One way that we make the data available is through publications. Another is through generating reports on demand from our databases. Generally requests for these reports come in one of two ways: "Tell me everything you have on a particular genus, family, or other taxonomic group", or "Tell me everything you have about a country or other geographic area".

Through contractual work we have undertaken for CITES, the European Union, the International Tropical Timber Organization, ODA, and other organizations, TPU has information on tropical timber species, species in international trade, etc., and reports based on these data sets can also be generated in conjunction with the other selection criteria mentioned above.

For each of its 65 500 tracked species, subspecies, and varieties, TPU maintains nomenclatural, taxonomic, conservation, and distribution data. We do this by maintaining a series of related database tables as part of a relational database application. The nomenclatural and taxonomic information kept within the NAMES and associated files includes the scientific name, upper­level taxonomy, common synonyms, and common names. Common names, as you well know are very difficult in plants in that the same name is used for many species and the same species may have several common names in various languages. However, these names are occasionally more stable than the scientific name, and in many parts of the world they are used regularly: certainly in the tropical timber-trade sector and in some of the international trade, they are used in preference to the scientific name.

Within WCMC we have a Protected Areas Data Unit (PADU) which has the task of maintaining the World Directory of Protected Areas for the United Nations. Information is gathered for all protected areas over 1000 hectares, and this now covers some 33 000 sites. By means of a contract from the British Overseas Development Administration for the FAO, TPU and PADU undertook an assessment of the state of plant and animal inventories for protected areas in the tropics. This study revealed some disturbing statistics ­ of the 8715 protected areas in the tropics for which WCMC has information, only 5% are known to have inventories for either plants or animals. Only 2.5% of them had plant inventories. These inventories ranged from preliminary and very crude to extensive. The largest number of plants inventoried for a single site is 2584 species of higher plants from the Yanachaga Chemillen National Park in Peru. The size of the protected area was correlated with the number of species found within it, and some interesting conclusions can be drawn from those data. But the most disturbing information was the relatively poor job that many protected areas are doing to conserve individual species. For Indonesia alone, we linked 3900 species of higher plants to 18 sites in that country for which we had good inventory data; most of the threatened plants we tracked from Indonesia were lacking from these inventories. Another telling outcome of this survey is that it will take 4.5 man­years to complete data entry of the 1000 inventories that we did not link to our species databases.

For distributions, we maintain some 98 000 records linking plants to countries, major political units within countries, or off­shore islands. All of this information is linked to the WCMC Geographic Coding System in which we break the world into 600 geopolitical units. This system formed the precursor to the Biological Recording Unit (BRU) scheme, which was recently adopted by the Taxonomic Databases Working Group (TDWG) of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). WCMC has digitized the boundaries of these BRUs and will make this information available in digital format at the upcoming TDWG meetings in Mexico. These units are geopolitically based, as this is where conservation legislation is applicable. But, obviously a higher­resolution view of plant distribution is also wanted, one based on habitat or vegetation types. WCMC has been active with TDWG since its inception in gathering, analyzing, and producing standard coding systems for difficult concepts such as habitats. While habitat classification may be relatively easy to agree within a relatively small country, finding or producing a system that will work around the globe is much more challenging. The Habitats Data Unit within WCMC has embraced fully the technologies and capabilities afforded by geographic information systems (GISs). We have invested heavily in this technology, and increasingly the information we hold in our structured databases, such as BG­BASE, is being linked to these spatial data sets managed through GISs.

WCMC has produced two of a three­volume data set on the state of the tropical rain forests of the world; the third volume, on Latin America, is now under way. These volumes present statistical and mapped data for all tropical rain forests within a country and allow for country­by­country comparisons, as well as for overlaying vegetation types on top of climatic, demographic change, protected areas, and other data sets. Other large data sets held in GIS format include a complete map for Antarctica, wetlands of the world, coral reefs, etc. As a pilot project with the Natural History Museum London and the Herbarium in Florence, WCMC has been involved in mapping the rare species of Italy.

GIS data sets are inherently large and require fast and still­expensive equipment to run the software. As an example of the size of the data holdings within WCMC, we currently have on­line storage capabilities of approximately 6.5 gigabytes, or 6.5 billion characters. This very large number can be better understood by realizing that if this 6.5 gigabytes represented only letters and numbers, and if these letters and numbers were printed out on pages such as the schedule for this Congress, they would occupy 1.5 million pages.

The rapidly falling prices of faster and faster microcomputers will allow us to exchange and manipulate data in ways that we can barely dream of today. Certainly a small botanic garden may well feel that the data sets I am discussing here are totally beyond their reach of interest, but I do not believe that this is so. When I think back on the advances made in hardware and software in the twenty one years that I have been actively involved in biological computing, I am dumbstruck by what we now take for granted; the pace of development in information technology is not likely to diminish in the years ahead; if anything, the pace is increasing.

This has implications for each botanic garden that is planning, designing, or populating a database. First, you must realize that you are not working alone and that your problems or need for information may well have been addressed by some other institution in your own or a different country. BGCI's The Recorder is an excellent forum for exchanging information on what computer systems have been developed and how they may be obtained. But, there is great deal of useful information that does not make it into The Recorder. For instance, computerized mapping of living collections has been done several times now, computerized labelling has been done, image storage has been done, on­line data capture through hand­held computers and geopositioning units has been done, and so on. This is not to say that better ways of accomplishing these tasks should not be pursued and adopted when available, but it is a reminder that many of the problems you face have already been addressed somewhere or other.

Remember too that any well designed computing system in a botanic garden will have uses far beyond being strictly a tool for internal curation and management. The information that you track, especially on endangered species, is potentially of tremendous value and worth to the conservation of that species. If you are the only garden growing a certain rare or threatened species, then your obligation to excellence in plant records is even greater. To assist gardens in exchanging data with each other, and with international bodies such as TPU, BGCI, etc., the International Transfer Format for Botanic Garden Records (ITF) was published several years ago and was the first international standard to be adopted by the TDWG of IUBS as mentioned above. The ITF certainly has shortcomings, and part of one of the Congress workshops is devoted to improving this standard by producing a second version of it. And, to date, the ITF has not been widely used for inter­garden transfer of data. But this will undoubtedly change in the near future, as gardens become more sophisticated in their database capabilities and in the demands that they place on their database systems.

Also, the existence of a world­wide communications protocol and link, called the Internet, is an exciting advance that will surely change the way gardens acquire, manipulate, and exchange data. By the end of this year the World Conservation Monitoring Centre will join the Internet, giving us access to over 7 million computing systems around the world. We will do this in order to acquire data that we need to continue our global mission more efficiently, but we will also make our substantial data holdings available in electronic format to other organizations on the Internet. We recently did some tests of the Internet prior to laying the cables in our new building and found that a round­trip message to Australia and back took 0.6 seconds. We did on­line searches of TROPICOS, the system used in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and got responses in less than a second. Having such capabilities available is going to radically alter the way we think about data and our own databases. You could, for instance, gather up­to­date global conservation status and world distribution data for any one of the 65 500 species that we track within TPU in a matter of seconds, or you could do an on­line search of our bibliographic databases on plant conservation, or pull down a copy of our vegetation or other thematic maps for any part of the world in which you have an interest.

These are exciting ideas, not all of which are practical today, but all of which will be in the very near future. The international databases have a moral obligation to ensure that data is repatriated as effectively and as rapidly as possible, and we do this through our activities with the United Nations. But individual gardens, too, have an obligation to keep the best records possible, and to keep them in formats that can be easily transferred and interpreted, preferably by adopting the various international standards in place or being devised. Together, the botanic gardens of the world and the international databases, such as those maintained by TPU, form a powerful partnership to better effect plant conservation globally.

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