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Plant Blindness

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plant blindness means plants & trees get overlooked in conservation projects.

Right, a quick experiment for you. Looking at the two images above, which one pulls at your heart strings and makes you go aaaah?

I’ll wager it was the Harp seal pup on the left. The plant on the right is a cycad, to give it its scientific name it is the Encephalartos nubimontanus. The more pronounceable name is the blue cycad and it was native to the Limpopo region of South Africa. Note the fact I used the term was native, sadly now this plant is extinct in its native habitat.

Plants always lose out in the cuteness stakes

As part of my conservation diploma, one module focused on vegetation management and concentrated on the threats to native plants in South Africa. In particular the Cape floral kingdom. Of the worlds’ six floral kingdoms, the others being, Antarctic, Australasian, Boreal, Neotropic, Palaeotropic. The Cape floral kingdom is not only the smallest, but also the most diverse. The fynbos region makes up about 80% of South Africa’s floral kingdom, it is home to some 8,500 species. Of this total nearly 6000 are endemic to the region. That is to say they are found nowhere else on earth. Alarmingly, of that 8,500 species, 1,700 of them are threatened with extinction.

If this were animals or birds under such threat, I am sure it would be bigger news. The trouble is, as shown by my basic test at the start of this article. Plants do not have that “aaah” factor. We do not tend anthropomorphise plants. Anthro what I hear you say. Anthropomorphism is a scientific term for giving animals and objects, human characteristics. For example in the image below, the deer look like they are kissing. This is a human trait we can identify with, it triggers an emotion and connection within us – the “aaah” factor.

anthropomorphism - giving animals human characteristics.

Of course they are not kissing and chances are this moment only lasted a fraction of a second. They are simply smelling each other to reestablish they know each other – sorry! Going back to our seal pup, it appeals to us because it looks cute. Who can ignore those big saucer like eyes. Humans are programmed to respond to features like this. Human babies typically have large eyes and appealing round faces for a reason. It triggers a nurturing instinct in us. Just look at Walt Disney animations for example, many of the characters in the films follow this formula. So what chance do plants stand!

Plant blindness

So worrying is this trend of favouring animal conservation over plants. The phrase “plant blindness” was coined over 20 years ago to highlight the issue. Our habit of overlooking our vegetal world is a cause for concern. Our plant blindness means they do not attract nearly the same amount of conservation attention and therefore funds as animals do. For example in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne, observed that plants make up 57% of endangered species in the USA. Yet they only receive some 4% of funding for conservation projects.

As I mentioned earlier, the fynbos biome in South Africa has 1,700 species threatened with extinction. Some of the endemic plants that grow here have a range that covers an area no bigger than that of a soccer field! So we really cannot afford to be plant blind for much longer, otherwise we run the risk of losing even more of our precious biodiversity.

Why do we not see plants?

OK, obviously we do see plants, but why do we not notice them in the same way we notice a squirrel or for that matter a lion? There is a scientific theory that goes some way to possibly explaining this phenomenon. Once our descendants left the relative safety of the trees and started roaming the plains and grasslands, they, along with many other animals which shared this environment with them, had a new problem to combat. Namely not being eaten! In our early days we were not top dog and would of been on the menu for a host of hungry predators.

So along with the antelope and other herbivores of that time, we were programmed to watch for movement. To put it simply things which move could possibly either eat us, harm us or be food themselves. Although plants and trees are a valuable food source, and some will harm us if eaten as a rule they are not likely to pursue you across the savannas.

Basic instinct has taught us to watch for movement - it could be danger!

Like the flight or fight response, it makes sense that this behaviour of noticing movement is still deeply ingrained in our sub-conscious. Perhaps as plants do not engage with us, either through movement or communicate to us via sound. They fade into the background and blend in along with all the buildings and street furniture of our urban environments. They are there, we are just oblivious to them. On a side note, studies into trees has shown that they do communicate with one another, they do this by scent and even electrical impulses. I recommend reading Peter Wohlleben’s excellent book “The hidden life of trees” I guarantee you will look at trees in a whole new light.

The invisibleness of trees and plants to us, means we do not notice them until they are gone. Sadly their demise is nearly always as a result of our interference in the natural balance of things.

Another problem of our making

Returning again to the fynbos region of South Africa the need for conservation work in this area is down to man’s tampering. The plants and animals which live here are under constant pressure from human activity. The main causes are listed below:

  • Invasive species, the introduction of the Australian Acacia or wattle. This shrub/tree was introduced to help stabilise the sand dunes of the Cape flats region. Not only is it highly invasive, but also alters the structure of the soil.
  • Commercial afforestation, the process of planting trees, or sowing seeds, in a barren land devoid of any trees to create a forest.
  • The development of housing estates and farms, to accommodate and feed an ever growing populous
  • .A growing number of plant species, especially cycads, are under increasing threat from unscrupulous collectors. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported in 2018, that over 365 protected plant species were openly being sold on Amazon and ebay.

The fynbos is also home to a number of endemic animals and birds. The rarest tortoise in the world, the geometric tortoise, makes its home here. Likewise the Cape sugarbird and the orange breasted sunbird, which are important pollinators for the plants of the fynbos are found nowhere else on earth.

endangered - geometric tortoise and cape sugar bird
The rare geometric tortoise and cape sugar bird.

A call for action

The fynbos region highlights the need for conservation action to be taken as a matter of urgency if we are to save the rare flora and fauna which call this home. We need to turn our plant blindness into plant awareness or run the risk of losing these gems forever. Otherwise the plant and animal life which live here and in many other ecosystems across the earth will go the way of the Dodo, Great Auk, Moa, Tasmanian wolf, Zanzibar Leopard, along with the 500 species that have gone extinct in just the last 100 years. They will be consigned to photographs and drawings in books or gathering dust as museum exhibits.

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