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Protecting threatened plant species

Numerous plant species are threatened and in danger of becoming extinct, due to changes in their environment that are caused by human development, invasion by alien plant species and changes in weather patterns as a result of global warming.

“The extinction of plant species will have a domino effect on man and animals, both of which could run out of food and medicinal plants,” says Hlengiwe Mtshali (33), a Red List scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), whose job it is to protect threatened species.

Mtshali is one of four people at Sanbi responsible for assessing the conservation status of South African plants. “Red Listing is the process of assessing species’ risks of extinction and I am part of the team that does this. As a Red List scientist, I am mainly responsible for assessing the conservation status of South African plants, using International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines,” she explained.

Risk of extinction

Her assessment of a species’ risk of extinction is based on its threats, such as environmental conditions, development and other factors.

Mtshali collects, identifies and preserves various endangered freshwater plants from South Africa’s wetlands.

She also conducts quality control on the plants she preserves. The information she draws from the curation process is used to classify which plants are endangered and which are extinct.

“The purpose of the Red List is to inform and guide decision-makers in conservation planning or protected area expansion. It is also used during Environmental Impact Assessment processes and to produce a list of threatened and protected species in terms of the Biodiversity Act.” Mtshali says plant extinction has a wider effect on society; it leads to environmental imbalance and contributes to global warming as there are fewer plants giving off oxygen.

She started her career as an intern for a Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation programme, at Sanbi’s KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) herbarium in 2010. The internship provided her with the skills she needed for the job. During her programme, Mtshali was responsible for herbarium specimen processing, which is the collecting, pressing and mounting of plant specimens; plant identification; data capturing; physical curation and filing herbarium specimens.

In 2013, she took part in a two-year Groen Sebenza internship with the Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc). “Groen Sebenza is a Jobs Fund Partnership Project, funded by National Treasury. It was aimed at developing priority skills in the biodiversity sector, to create sustainable job opportunities for 800 unemployed graduates and non-graduates,” she explained.

New opportunities

Her new role saw Mtshali returning to work at KZN’s Sanbi office. “Sanbi was tasked with this major skills development and job creation programme and partnered with other host institutions across the country, from non-governmental organisations to government and the private sector.

“I was offered a job and grabbed it, because I saw it as an opportunity that would open doors for me. I was based in KZN, working for the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers Programme, funded by BotSoc and Sanbi, which involves citizen scientists in monitoring or surveying South Africa’s plants of conservation concern.”

During this period, her job included doing field surveys and providing the citizen scientists with project support materials. She also managed plant collections and specimen processing and captured the data collected to conduct quality control.

Protecting the planet

In 2015, BotSoc offered Mtshali a contract position and she did an online IUCN Red List training course. She also holds a Master of Sciences in Botany degree from the University of the Free State, and Bachelor’s and Honours degrees from the same institution.

“I wanted to study environmental management, which deals with trying to prevent ecological disasters from affecting the globe by ensuring that we leave the planet in a healthy state for future generations and help preserve all forms of life, including marine life and vegetation.

“However, in the year I arrived at the university, it was no longer offering the course. This meant I had to change the degree to something closely aligned to environmental management. I opted for botany, a scientific study of plants and their economic importance,” Mtshali said.

In high school, at Qophindlela Secondary School, Mtshali studied agricultural science and geography. She said pupils who want to follow in her footsteps should study mathematics, chemistry, physics and life sciences at high school level. “When they get to varsity, pupils must do courses in social studies and public affairs, as they are also helpful for aspiring botanists who are interested in conservation issues,” she said.

“Graduates should also apply for internships and volunteer in the relevant sector, as this will open opportunities for them,” she added.

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