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The Biotic World is in Crisis: Can botanical gardens rise to the challenge?

August 17, 2019

If you’ve been following the news over the past months you will have heard about the first major report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) this past May. Its conclusions shocked many: about 85% of the world’s wetlands have already been lost, the pace of deforestation is increasing, and the biomass of our own species combined with that of our domestic animals is now 96% of all mammal biomass on earth. In that remaining 4% are all the world’s wild whales, tigers, elephants, hippos, and even mice and squirrels. Backing up other estimates, it was reported that about 25% of the 400,000 species of wild plants on earth are now at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future.

While alarming, these figures aren’t exactly news to those of us who have been in the discipline of conservation biology for many years. The idea that Earth is facing the sixth great extinction, because of human activities, has been discussed since the 1970s. It’s really coming home now, though. Combined with rising global concern about our changing climate, and the understanding that one species — ours — is at the root of these problems, it can feel overwhelming.

We need to recognize that this news can have profound effects on individuals, affecting mood and leading to anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. There’s even a term for it now: ecoanxiety. One of the main contributors is a feeling that the problems are urgent (they are) and that there’s nothing you can do to help (that part’s not so true). We need recognition that action can and must be taken at all levels, beginning with individuals and moving right up through commercial and charitable organizations to governments and international agencies.

Botanical gardens are part of the solution. When our visitors are surveyed they often tell us that they value botanical gardens for aesthetic beauty, as places to get away from everyday stresses and experience the wonder of the plant world. That’s a very valuable and positive role, but there’s more we can do to rise to the challenges of today’s world. Royal Botanical Gardens has been working on sustainability of our own operations for several years, and we’ve been tracking our greenhouse gas emissions since 2012. We now have targets in place to reduce emissions, and take sustainability into account in everything we do.

It may not be as generally recognized but we are also protecting endangered species. Over 50 listed at-risk species are living naturally in RBG’s natural lands, including well known species like Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii), and lesser-known species like the Few-Flowered Club Rush (Trichophorum planifolium), now found nowhere else in Canada but along the shores of Cootes Paradise Marsh. It’s not just the nature sanctuaries that are important. A recent analysis undertaken with the help of Botanic Gardens Conservation International showed that there are 78 threatened plant species in our living collections too. Among these is Franklinia alatamaha, the Franklin Tree, named after Benjamin Franklin and originally found in Georgia, USA. This species is extinct in the wild and was last seen in nature in 1803.

Botanical gardens have been increasing their contribution to conservation since the early 1980s. It has never been more urgent that we bring everything we have to the table, to help the world deal with the climate emergency, protect species on the edge of extinction, and engage our visitors with meaningful, positive messages that the world is still beautiful, and our role in it can be positive.

Dr. David Galbraith

Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens


Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., and Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

Smith, P. 2018. The challenge for botanic garden science Plants, People, Planet 2018; 1: 38–43.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: