Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2014)
Madagascan Plants Threat Assessment
Last Updated: February 15th, 2018
The IUCN Red List, the foremost authority on extinction risk assessment for the Earth’s organisms, contains relatively few plant species. This is not necessarily because fewer plants than animals are threatened, but reflects a bias in our knowledge of plant populations; as few as ~6% of plant species have been formally assessed worldwide. Progress to correct this bias has been slow, particularly in areas of greatest need, such as Madagascar. The island nation boasts extremely high native plant diversity, and 9 out of every 10 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The unique flora provides fundamental support services to community and wildlife, but habitat loss and other threats endanger the ecosystems of Madagascar, which, once lost to Madagascar, are lost to the entire planet. Conservation interventions currently lack sufficient baseline information regarding which plants are threatened and where, primarily because Madagascar needs more resources and technical capacity to effectively apply the Red List system. However, recent developments in bioinformatics, web-mapping, and citizen science provide new tools to transform the Red Listing process, and could accelerate the speed of new assessments, ultimately facilitating more effective conservation actions.
Key Objectives and Activities
This project aimed to address the ongoing loss of plant diversity in Madagascar by building capacity in Red List assessment theory and application with key partners in Madagascar, including the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC), and through training and practical sessions like a plant BioBlitz. The project had three main objectives:
- Enhance botanical field work activities and increase the rate of observations of Madagascan flora through the use of smartphones and citizen science tools and techniques.
- Increase capacity of plant scientists and conservation biologists in Madagascar to carry out Red List conservation assessments of plants, utilizing the latest automated mapping techniques.
- Contribute to species-level conservation action plans as well as global conservation targets (Aichi 2020 and Global Strategy for Plant Conservation Target) through the Red List assessment of Madagascan plants.
At least 20 staff will be trained on full Red List methodologies, incorporating the latest web tools and technologies including the use of smartphones for observation recording. The project will facilitate the assessment of at least 100 key target species as part of a global monitoring scheme, helping to achieve global biodiversity targets, aiming for a wider goal of 500 species.
- Produce a comprehensive training package on using the iNaturalist website for posting observations, including how to develop and use electronic plant identification guides for plants.
- Publish iNaturalist Android application with enhanced ‘Guides’ features and produce an iNaturalist ‘Guide’ for plant identification including at least 100 species.
- Produce a comprehensive Red List assessor training package.
- Complete a one week Red List training workshop, leading to at least 20 individuals trained and a groundswell of knowledge on Red List assessment methods in Madagascar.
- Generate Red List assessments, and publication on the Red List, of at least 100 species, with the wider aim of generating many more assessments (500 – 1,000) over the next two years.
- Generate a priority list by calculating preliminary Red List assessments.
Increased human and technical capacity to conduct Red List assessments in Madagascar will accelerate the evaluations of plant population statuses, supporting conservation efforts on multiple scales. Data on threatened plant distribution will guide targeted interventions in response to imminent threats at local scales. Regional conservation action plans can be developed around biodiversity hotspots, and for the country as a whole, the Red List assessments of plants will help balance national conservation planning as more representative of overall biodiversity. The Red List assessments will contribute to Madagascan government commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity through the Sampled Red List Index Project and the GSPC 2020 targets.
Results to Date
The iNaturalist project, Zavamaniry Gasy, Plants of Madagascar, was launched in July 2014, and is now a focal point of an active community of more than 130 people who have, to date, generated more than 8,900 observations of more than 2,000 plant species. One of the key activities of the project was to improve the role of ‘Guides’ in the observation process. Guides are an iNaturalist tool that facilitate species identification by narrowing the list of likely observable species based on geography and taxonomy, thus making identification of plants more tractable for a broader group of participants. To enhance the role of Guides, the Kew team produced several screencast tutorials of general introduction to Guides on iNaturalist, how to create Guides, and how to use them in the field. These videos are also publicly available on YouTube, and the iNaturalist website, with about a third of the views coming from Madagascar. The project finalized a central Guide of Sampled Red list Index Plants of Madagascar which will focus data collection for the Red List assessments. The tutorials and utility of the Guides have inspired the generation of multiple additional iNaturalist Guides covering Madagascan plants. The project has also worked with the developers of the iNaturalist Android app, to enhance the features of guides for the smartphone implementation of the platform, further improving the ease and effectiveness with which observations can be recorded in the field.
To increase the workforce of plant scientists and conservationists contributing data that can be used for Red List assessments, the group held an iNaturalist training and BioBlitz in Analamazoatra (read more here), which inspired other BioBlitz events that together contributed nearly 800 observations to the project. In conjunction, a Red List assessment workshop was held to train 20 attendees in evaluating plant population status and preparing assessments for submission to IUCN. The training process for assessors is ongoing, but assessments for 8 species (6 orchids and 2 Aloe species) have been submitted. A further batch are in the submissions queue, giving a total of 49 assessments resulting directly from this project. Furthermore, to increase the impact of this workshop, the training materials from this workshop were made publicly available online.
The growth of the project catalyzed by the BioBlitz created a groundswell of interest, which allowed the project leaders to shift the focus toward increasing the quality of observations submitted to Zav Gasy. An entry in the project journal on how to submit photos like a botanist, rather than a tourist (read here), addressed a key issue of citizen science: obtaining high quality data. The emphasis on quality has paid off. iNaturalist automatically submits ‘research grade’ observations to GBIF. Currently over 3,000 plant records, or nearly 40% of the total Zav Gasy entries from Madagascar, have been submitted to GBIF in this way. In addition, the expanding influence of the guides in iNaturalist has both identified limitations and helped hone ‘best practices’. Guides with more depth allow for higher-resolution data, but that must be balanced with ease of use for observers who are not experts in plant taxonomy. Guides might be best developed based on the intended use and audience balancing depth with accessibility.
Additionally, the enthusiasm of observers to contribute high quality data at times posed a risk to conservation goals. One particular observer submitted a high number of records of orchids, complete with exact location coordinates. While this appeals to the high data standards of the project, it also potentially puts orchids at risk by collectors. iNaturalist has a feature to automatically obscure the locality information on species listed as vulnerable, but this could be not be employed because no Red List assessments have been accepted for any of these species. Ironic given that collecting such data to generate assessments is precisely the purpose of this project! Identifying this potential gap in the software allowed the group to engage iNaturalist in developing an institutional solution, and also afforded the opportunity to engage the observer in helping to protect their favorite species.
Overall, the project was successful despite falling short of the target number of completed Red List assessments. Time spent training and workshopping assessments improved skills and confidence of the team. Going forward, it is likely that momentum on generating Red List assessments can be built up as KMCC staff work quickly and independently to complete assessments. Adding to this momentum, IUCN have recently agreed that assessments can be published in four different languages: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The team at KMCC expressed clear consensus that they would be more comfortable assessing species in French – and of course even better if Malagasy can be added!
Primary Software Platforms
- iNaturalist website and Android App for field data gathering and organization of observation records
- GeoCAT – Geospatial Conservation Assessment Tool for Red List assessment calculations
- Bachman S; J Moat; AW Hill; J de la Torre; B Scott (2011) Supporting Red List threat assessments with GeoCAT: geospatial conservation assessment tool. Special Issue: e-Infrastructures for data publishing in biodiversity science. ZooKeys 150: 117–126. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.150.2109 (link)
- Cable, S (2011) New directions and challenges for the conservation of the flora of Madagascar. In: The Biology of Island Floras (D Bramwell; J Caujapé-Castells; Eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 522 pp.
- Ralimanana, H; Rabarijaona, R; Bachman, S; Cable, S. 2016. The iNaturalist citizen-science platform as an educational tool in Madagascar. Roots. 13(1): 9-11.
Project Director Biography
Steven Bachman works in the Geographical Information Science Unit at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is excited about this new funding opportunity for his work on conserving plant species in Madagascar. He is interested in Red List assessments of extinction risk as a way to help prioritize conservation actions. Although many plants in Madagascar are assumed to be at risk, few species have received a formal assessment. Bachman would like to see more use of the latest tools and technologies including electronic data capture in the field and automated assessment techniques to support conservation work and get plants on the conservation map.
Notes from JRS
Madagascar is one of the world’s unique and most threatened places and JRS had invested in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s REBIOMA project in 2011 and in 2013 as well as the Office National pour l’Environnement’s project to build the first Lemurs Atlas of Madagascar. This award to Kew moves JRS’ learning and support ‘closer to the ground’ in supporting Red List assessment, assessment capacity, and hand-held technology for endangered plants and continues Kew’s long-term engagement in Madagascar. So far, the project is exceeding its goals and building a community of Malagasy Kew staff and Malagasy partners who are enthused and engaged to use mobile technologies to collect plant data to high global standards. We are also grateful for the partnership of iNaturalist to support the Kew teams to learn the tool and optimize its interface. The team generated enthusiastic support and contributions to their observations website and a cohort of trained professional and citizen scientists familiar with the technology and its potential. The success of this work provided impetus to explore how the iNaturalist platform could be adapted to fisheries monitoring in our 2017 grant award to the Okavango Research Institute (2017).