A new study warns that a third of tropical African plants are on the path to extinction, with much of western Africa standing to lose more than 40 percent of plant diversity.
Ethiopia, and parts of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the hardest hit regions, the researchers found.
Species at risk include trees, shrubs, herbs and woody vines.
While the extinction risk of animals around the world has been well studied, the threat facing many plants remains unclear: 86% of mammal species have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) compared with only 8% of plant species. Now experts say they have come up with a rapid approach to give a preliminary classification.
If species do become extinct it will be a huge strain on local populations, says Thomas Couvreur at the French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), as biodiversity will plunge.
Couvreur and his team assessed more than 22,000 plants across the region and ranked them as likely threatened with extinction, potentially threatened with extinction or potentially not threatened with extinction. They found that 32 per cent of the species are likely or potentially facing extinction.
“Biodiversity provides countless benefits to humans and losing diversity jeopardizes our future,” Couvreur said.
The findings of the study were published in the journal Science Advances.
Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, commented on the crisis:
“Africa houses about the second largest forest block in the world but unfortunately this forest is going, and is going very fast. Currently in some African countries they are losing forest at a rate of about 2-3 percent per year, in some countries much faster. At this rate, if nothing is done, we may lose everything.
In the last 100 years, West Africa has lost about 90 percent of forest coverage. In many African countries the only forests left are reserved for permanent forestry, which means they are protected. Now in places like Ghana and the Ivory Coast we don’t have any forest left outside the reserves and now even the reserves are being encroached upon and being degraded by excessive logging and exploitation.
In the Congo Basin, where there are still forests outside the reserves, these areas are going very fast because of agriculture, commodity development and farming activity by small-holder farmers.”
The 10 countries with the highest proportion of threatened species are Sierra Leone, Gambia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Uganda. This is primarily being driven by deforestation to clear land for farming, land-use changes, population growth, economic development, and climate change.
“It is also important that we don’t just think about conservation and protection,” he said. “We also have to make sure we develop livelihood options and economic opportunities for the local communities. We need to get their support, and we can’t do that if they don’t know how they will survive — how they will get up in the morning and provide food for their children and family.”
Baffoe holds a Masters in Forestry and Environmental Policy from Louisiana State University, and a Bachelors from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He has over 20 years of experience working on natural resource management.