Oct 17

A worrying 83% of Madagascar’s palm species are threatened with extinction, according to an assessment carried out by the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Palm Specialist Group as part of the latest update to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Ravenea delicatula image

Ravenea delicatula in flower

Endangered endemics

Drawing on research by experts at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, this latest study is part of an ongoing project to assess the conservation status of all palms worldwide. It has helped bring the total number of plant, animal and fungus species assessed on the IUCN Red List to an impressive 65,581, of which 20,219 are threatened with extinction.

All 192 palm species found on Madagascar are endemic to the island, meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth. These plants form an integral part of Madagascar’s biodiversity, yet they are at risk from habitat loss and palm heart harvesting.

The majority of Madagascar’s palms grow in the island’s eastern rainforests, which have already been reduced to less than one quarter of their original size and which continue to disappear,” said Dr William Baker, Chair of the IUCN/SSC Palm Specialist Group and Head of Palm Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “The high extinction risk faced by Madagascar’s palms reflects the decline in these forests, which threatens all of the remarkable wildlife that occurs there.”

Dimaka image

The dimaka is also known as the suicide palm

The importance of palms

While the species that form Madagascar’s unique wildlife face the severe impacts of the reduction in palm forests, so too do many of the country’s poorest communities, which rely on palm species to provide materials for the construction of houses, as well as food in the form of edible palm hearts.

The figures on Madagascar’s palms are truly terrifying, especially as the loss of palms impacts both the unique biodiversity of the island and its people,” said Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “This situation cannot be ignored.”

Dimaka leaf image

Dimaka leaf

Palm problems

Madagascar’s palm species face several threats, including land clearance for agriculture and logging. One such Critically Endangered species is Ravenea delicatula, known from just one site on the island. Worryingly, this site is not protected, and Ravenea delicatula is under threat from local people clearing areas of forest to cultivate hill rice, as well as from mining activities launched in search of gems and minerals.

The dimaka (Tahina spectabilis), also known as the suicide palm, is a species large enough to be viewed on Google Earth, growing to a spectacular height of up to 18 metres. Within months of flowering and producing seeds, the palm dies. With only 30 mature individuals left in the wild and with much of its habitat being converted to agricultural lands, this species has been classified as Critically Endangered.

Seed collection poses an additional risk to many palm species, including Dypsis tokoravina, classified as Critically Endangered, and the majestic palm (Ravenea rivularis), whose status has changed from Vulnerable to Endangered due to the ongoing harvest of its seeds despite strict trade regulations.

Urgent action

A prime example of why conservation action must be taken sooner rather than later is the palm Dypsis brittania. This species is only found in Makira Natural Park, which provides a certain level of protection. However, the reserve was only recently established, and with no Dypsis brittania plants found during a survey carried out in 2007, there are fears that this species may already have been lost as a result of habitat degradation.

Majestic palm image

Majestic palm

Direct action on the ground

As a result of this assessment of Madagascar’s palms, conservationists now have a firm basis on which to establish direct conservation action on the ground.

The key to saving Madagascar’s palms, and its biodiversity in general, is strongly dependent on the closest possible collaboration with local communities – especially in this period of severe political instability during which government agencies are working well below standard. Unfortunately this extremely high degree of threat in Madagascar is not unique to palms,” said Dr Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has initiated several conservation projects based around community involvement in well-managed seed harvesting and habitat protection. Assisted by Madagascar’s national seed bank, one particular project aimed at protecting the suicide palm sells sustainably harvested seeds through a commercial palm seed merchant, with the money flowing back to the local people who use it to renovate buildings and to grow food more productively.

Wide-scale efforts

While these targeted projects are important in the survival of specific species, IUCN warns that wide-scale efforts are needed to truly secure the future of Madagascar’s palms.

While some species of palm may respond to focused species conservation action, securing the future for Madagascar’s palms requires wide-scale efforts,” said Dr Smart. “Madagascar has made great progress to preserve its unique wildlife by conserving 10% of the island in protected areas. But a game-changing conservation effort is needed to protect the remaining habitat and create more protected areas.”

Read more on this story at IUCN – Madagascar’s palms near extinction.

Learn more about species found in Madagascar on ARKive.

Find out more about palm species on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author