Six decades to survey East Africa’s flora

[Image] The primeval Bwindi forests are home to many of the continent’s gorillas.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

[Image] The completed series of the Flora of Tropical East Africa.
(Image: Dr Henk Beentje)

[Image] The newly described Solanum polhillii Voronts., a type of wild spiny aubergine named after botanist Roger Polhill, is restricted to partly shaded limestone savanna habitats sheltered from herbivory.
(Image: Dr Maria Vorontsova, Kew)

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Janine Erasmus

An epic survey of the flora of tropical East Africa is now complete, 60 years after it began.

The study was initiated in 1948 by scientists from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and is known as Flora of Tropical East Africa (FTEA).

The survey covered over 12 000 plant species from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, in habitats ranging from desert to wetland, and at altitudes from sea level to the continent’s highest point – this equates to about 4% of the world’s flora.

The Eastern Arc Mountains in Kenya and Tanzania – a chain that starts in the northeast near Mount Kilimanjaro and continues down almost as far as Zambia – the lush coastal forests of Tanzania and Kenya, and the region from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park across Lake Victoria to the largely untouched Bwindi rainforests in Uganda were areas of particular interest, as they are renowned for the high diversity of both flora and fauna.

The Kew Drylands: Africa team, which managed the project and works in 16 sub-Saharan countries, claims the FTEA is the largest regional floral survey ever completed.

Over 1 500 of the species uncovered were new to science, according to Kew, and in the last four years alone 114 of this number were described.

The first FTEA data were published in 1952, and the final parts of the catalogue were eventually revealed in September 2012.

The latter stages of the project were overseen by Dutch botanist Henk Beentje, who also served as current editor of the series. He said at the launch in September of the final volume, that the catalogue is of vital importance not only to conservationists, but to those who work in the fields of forestry, agriculture, horticulture, and wildlife management – now and in the future.

With deforestation an ever-present threat, conflicts often arise over the use of land for agriculture versus natural plant growth, Beentje said, and more often than not the natural plant growth will generally lose the fight.

“There’s not much we can do about it, except keep conservationists informed as to how to identify the plant, where the plant grows, what its biggest threats are, and how to combat the threats.”

Breaking new scientific ground

The project’s original duration was thought to be around 15 years, but scientists soon realised that cataloguing the larger plant families would take time. They also realised that the area’s floral richness and the total number of species growing there had been sorely underestimated, and that a new system of collecting was needed.

Now, 60 years later, say the Kew team, the East African area is one of the best collected regions, in terms of floral samples, on the continent – thanks to a large pool of contributors from, among other countries, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Egypt, Denmark, Zimbabwe, Spain and Poland.

The completed survey is invaluable in that it provides checklists of the area’s plant diversity, offers scientists a solid taxonomic base from which to work, and is an important source of data for conservation purposes as it pinpoints the species that are endemic to small areas as well as the areas of high botanical diversity.

Besides the contributors from Britain and 20 other countries – 135 authors in total – the work is extensively illustrated by 211 artists. In addition, said Beentje, many more people, including locals, have received training in scientific techniques.

“Now all further work on the wild plants of this region will be built on a solid foundation,” he said. “Not just botanical work, but work on local uses by local people, ecology, vegetation work, zoology and, of course, conservation.”

The Kew team is also working on a similar project involving Southern African flora, titled Flora Zambesiaca.