Even as the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats accelerates and is worsened by climate change, scientists at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kauai have located previously unknown populations of at least nine species of rare and endangered native Hawaiian plants. NTBG’s Science and Conservation Director, Dr. Nina Rønsted, described the findings as, “a huge step forward in rare plant conservation. For us, this is the best news of the year.”
In 2020, NTBG discovered and mapped 11 individual Gouania meyenii plants, a nearly extinct member of the Buckthorn family, reduced to a few plants on Oahu and thought to be gone from Kauai until this new discovery. NTBG and its collaborators at the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state of Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program, also located two previously unknown Critically Endangered Flueggea neowawraea trees in Kauai’s Waimea Canyon using a spotting scope and a drone.
Additional population discoveries include the Endangered Geniostoma lydgatei, known from less than 200 plants limited to remote sections of Kauai’s wet forests.
Over the course of the year, even as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted human activity on an unprecedented scale, NTBG played a central role in locating populations of other rare plants including: Hibiscadelphus distans; Melicope stonei; Schiedea viscosa; Lysimachia scopulensis; Lepidium orbiculare; and Isodendrion laurifolium — nine species in total.
Rønsted called the population discoveries, “A new hope for conservation of Hawaii’s endangered rare plants and native forests.” She said the findings illustrate the importance of investing in science as a vital tool to better understand and protect the natural world.
This year’s newly discovered populations have been found in isolated, often difficult to reach areas including steep valleys and sheer cliff faces. NTBG is known for its use of roping and rappelling to reach inaccessible rare plants dating back to the 1970s. Since 2017, NTBG has increasingly used drones and other new mapping technology to locate rare and endangered plants so they can be protected and if accessible, seeds can be collected for restoration work.
In 2020, NTBG scientists have been able to continue their work after implementing safety protocols and distancing measures to ensure the safety of staff and partners.