Preventing plant extinctions in the Richtersveld, South Africa

Desert landscape
Desert landscape with pink flowers

The Richtersveld, a region forming the tip of the Namib desert, is located in the very north-west of South Africa. Its desert climate and proximity to the cold Atlantic waters result in extremely variable climatic conditions. Over the last decade, these conditions have gotten more severe with extreme drought and sandstorms. Together, these two phenomena have created a hostile environment for wildlife to survive; some key plant species in the area have experienced population declines as high as 85% in recent decades.

To decrease the rate at which highly vulnerable and rare plant species have been disappearing in the Richtersveld, South African National Parks began an offsite plant conservation greenhouse 10 years ago.

To date, this basic greenhouse hosts hundreds of thriving plant species, four of which have since gone extinct in the wild. Now, through the Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund, South African National Parks will construct a second, larger greenhouse facility to house the increasing number of vulnerable plant species.

The new greenhouse will cover an area of 3,200 square feet and will feature a raised tunnel design and an overhead misting system, among other features. Experts will generate a list of priority plant species based on a Red List assessment—a tool used to determine how close a species is to becoming extinct—that will help inform which species to conserve in the facility. To establish which species are already being conserved in other facilities, the list was sent to the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s botanical garden, the Millenium Seed Bank, and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Once the species are identified, a trained nursery team will care for the selected species in the facility according to their natural habitat requirements and, once adequately established, they’ll send live specimens of the species to other facilities for long-term safekeeping, like the institute’s Hantam and Desert Botanical Gardens. Scientists will also send the conserved species’ seeds to the Millennium Seed Bank for storage in their seed vaults. By sending live specimens and seeds to various facilities, we can better ensure the continued existence of these rare and endangered plants. This project plans to have over 400 species represented and conserved in this facility.