A thin line between extinction and survival

14th September 2020

This reflective piece has been written by CCI Executive Director, Mike Maunder. 

Conservationists carry a particular type of scar tissue, it builds up steadily with time in response to the loss of species and landscapes we have known and loved. It has the potential to accrete as a paralyzing melancholy or it can drive an individual’s passion to stop extinction happening again.  


Image credit: Kduthler / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

I’m sometimes asked about species that give me hope and that demonstrate how passionate conservationists can make a difference.  There are a number- whether it be the reintroduction of scimitar horned oryx back to Chad after their extinction in the wild or the rediscovery of Wood’s Hibiscadelphus in Hawaii. One plant species symbolizes the contemporary challenge of securing lost species and habitats, it is the verticillate or whorl heath, Erica verticillataendemic to the Cape region of South Africa. I first came across it in the glasshouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew it is a plant that demands attention with wonderful pink flowers. It used to grow in the “Cape Flats” and was eradicated by land development and over harvesting for flower picking in the mid-twentieth century. Conservationists at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens started an international quest to find the species in cultivation They found that a few plants had survived in cultivation, including some miraculous survivors in the Schönbrunn Botanical Gardens in Vienna descended from wild collections made in the late Eighteenth Century. The team at Kirstenbosch accumulated a breeding group from which plants have been successfully reintroduced into the wild.  

Image credit: Abu Shawka / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

South African botanist and horticulturist, Anthony Hitchcock, championed this species and played a vital leadership role in its survival and successful reintroduction. Anthony sadly passed away on July 7th from COVID19 related complications.  He has left a legacy of successful species and habitat conservation projects and importantly a number of community driven restoration projects in the Cape Flats that cherish their populations of the whorl heath.  In a part of the world wracked by race wounds, poverty and extinction, the whorl heath is a symbol of both social and ecological regeneration.  

As we enter the Decade for Ecological Restoration and prepare for a series of international meetings that will establish the global agenda for conservation it is worth remembering that is often individuals whose passion for a species shifts the trajectory away from extinction.  As more species move along the path towards extinction we will need those passionate conservationists who are driven not necessarily by policy and internationaconvention, but by their deep desire to save a species or landscape. Individuals such as Anthony Hitchcock through their commitment to a species and a landscape can disperse the paralysis of melancholy and instill hope.