Why Are Endangered Plants So Important?

In 1973, a federal law known as the Endangered Species Act was passed. This law obligated both federal and state governments to protect any species that is threatened with extinction, and determine which species qualify to be considered threatened or endangered. Earlier that same year, an international agreement was created called The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. This agreement regulated the trade of both animal and plant species, with the goal of keeping international trade from causing the endangerment of a species. In 1994, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, was created. This is the world’s oldest global conservation organization, and has an assessment system in place that determines what level of threat each considered species faces.

There are so many organizations dedicated to saving endangered species, and protecting the environments they are in. In 2020, finding a conservation organization is as simple as looking it up online, and you’ll find dozens of options worldwide. Despite there being so many conservation organizations and so many people contributing to these efforts, studies estimate that it would still cost $76 billion dollars per year to preserve all threatened land animals; that does not even include plants, or any ocean species. This information leads to many questions, such as: why do we want to preserve these plants and animals at all? Wouldn’t the time and money be better spent somewhere else, like feeding the hungry people in our countries, or dedicated to finding cures for illnesses? Why are these plants and animals so important, and why should we be concerned?

The truth is, the main reason that we should be concerned about threatened plants and animals is that humans are the reason that they are threatened in the first place. The one common factor for every endangered plant or animal is humans; hunting, pollution, disease, loss of genetic variation, loss of habitat, and the introduction of foreign species are all caused by humans, and are the main reasons plants and animals become threatened. The list of endangered species has more than doubled over the last twenty years, mainly due to human interaction with the flora and fauna, leading scientists to believe that we are entering the sixth mass extinction to ever happen on our planet. Lack of effort to save these plants and animals could lead to an extinction as large as that of the dinosaurs; that is, entire species could be wiped out if we don’t change something.

The above statement seems dramatic, or a bit of a stretch, but it rings true. In every biome, each plant and animal helps to maintain the balance of all the ecosystems within the biome. If even one species in an ecosystem becomes threatened, it creates a chain reaction in the ecosystem, and is a concrete sign that the entire ecosystem is beginning to fail. If one species dies out, all other species that rely on that species will be threatened. These threatened species will either be forced to adapt, or die out as well. Take the cork tree for example: it is not endangered itself, but cork oak forests provide homes for many endangered animals, such as the Barbary macaque and the critically endangered Iberian lynx. The bark of the cork tree prevents fire from spreading, saving these animals from forest fires that are so common in the hot climates. If the cork oak trees did not exists, the entire ecosystem would be in danger of extinction due to forest fires. Unbalanced ecosystems like one without cork trees would not only affect the plants and animals, but humans as well. Humans rely on healthy ecosystems to keep us alive, as we are depended upon plants and animals for food, oxygen, and clean water. Even if we did not consume meat, we are reliant upon insects, birds, and animals to pollinate our farmed crops, and we are reliant upon plants to provide us water and help to keep our water clean. When it comes to ocean conservation efforts, they are still important, as a majority of our oxygen comes from plankton on the surface of our oceans. Humans need all biomes to be healthy in order to survive, so if we allow our ecosystems to fail, we are in turn risking our own health.

Another reason that the conservation of plants is important is because many plants have medicinal purposes. Before modern medicine was invented, the main way of treating ailments was by using different parts of plants or plant compounds. Today, much of our modern medicine is inspired by these natural medications, and around 40% of our prescription medications are actually made from plant compounds or plant extracts. If so much of our medicine comes from plants, who’s to say that the cures for currently uncured illnesses won’t be found in plants that have not been previously used for medicine?

Unfortunately, a good percentage of plants that are endangered are so because they are being heavily cultivated for medicinal purposes. These plants are overly exploited and used for commercial purposes; take for example plants like black cohosh and goldenseal, which are of the buttercup family. These plants are used for tonics, and to treat ailments like hemorrhoids, colds, rheumatism, and general pain. These buttercups have been placed on the endangered species list due to people taking them without propagating them. CITES regulates trade of these particular plants in an attempt to prevent over-harvesting in the wild, as many people still illegally harvest these plants from public places to sell them commercially. The willow tree is another famous plant on the endangered species list due to deforestation and the destruction of their habitats in the wild. The bark of the willow tree is famous for being “nature’s Aspirin,” as it contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in the drug Aspirin.

Actaea racemosa, or black cohosh.

Another reason that many activists rally for the conservation of endangered plants and animals is because certain species are a special part of their culture, or are simply beautiful to look at. The baobab tree, native to parts of Africa and endemic to Australia, are on the endangered species list due to changing rainfall patterns in Africa. These trees date back at least 2,000 years, and there are many myths and stories about the baobab tree that make up part of peoples’ cultures and traditions. The beautiful part about the myths and stories about the baobab tree is that the baobab tree is still there; if things continue as they are, the myths and stories will be all that is left of the baobab tree. Then there is Dendroseris Neriifolia, or the Chile tree, that is famous only because there are only two trees of this species left in the wild. These trees used to occupy all of continental Chile, but the only two in the world are now found on Robinson Crusoe island. The population of these trees declined due to soil erosion and the introduction of foreign species of rabbits, which eat the flowers of the trees and prevent them from reproducing.

There are many ways that you can help with conservation efforts in your everyday life, without becoming a scientist or dedicating all of your time and money to organizations. The first step is to become more educated about endangered species. The list of endangered species is available to the public, and you can see what species are in your area. It might surprise you that some very famous plants and animals are on that list, or plants and animals that are native to your area. The second step is to eliminate invasive species from your garden, or from your area. Planting native plants and avoiding invasive plants can help with conservation efforts by encouraging healthy ecosystems; visit your state’s botanical garden to learn more about plants native to your area. Recycling and purchasing sustainable products can aid conservation efforts, as sustainable products use less water, and some companies will even plant a tree or donate to an organization for every purchase. Minimize purchases that encourage oil drilling, logging, over-development, or that result in habitat destruction; purchase wood and wood products from places like the Forest Stewardship Council, to help prevent logging. Find more information about conservation efforts at https://www.endangered.org/10-easy-things-you-can-do-to-save-endangered-species/.

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