Rapid environmental changes, typically cause mass extinctions of various species. Despite actions targeting the preservation of Ghana’s biodiversity of forests, deserts and mountain eco-systems, and the call for more attention to protect endangered species under Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals, it seems that the problem of endangered plant species is rather on the increase, threatening biodiversity in Ghana.
Data from the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 1,197 plant species as endangered worldwide in 1998. The number rose to 2,655 in 2012 and in 2017, 12,505 plants species were listed as endangered or threatened.
In Ghana, 119 plant species are considered threatened according to the World Bank’s recent report.
Experts have called for a biodiversity in Ghana policy, medicinal plant farming with government involvement to conserve Ghana’s ecosystems.
But in the absence of this, how do we tackle endangered plants for purposes of conservation and sustainability.
Role of Herbarium Collections in Ghana’s Plant Biodiversity
An herbarium is a collection of dried plant specimens with associated information, mounted on a sheet of paper, catalogued, and systematically arranged for reference and scientific study. Other information such as the location and the environmental conditions of a plant, can be obtained through a collection of specimens in an herbarium.
Rapid estate development, coupled with ‘galamsey’, commercial farming, climate change and timber logging is causing alarming rate of degradation and herbarium collection is the surest means by which data on plants that have gone extinct as well as those that are endangered, due to the above human activities can be obtained. That is, if all other measures towards conservation fails, an herbarium collection would be the last resort to offer solution and preserve biodiversity in Ghana.
There is currently a large database (53,509 records) on the botanical resources of Ghana consisting mainly of records captured from Ghanaian herbarium specimen sheets. The data was obtained from two major sources: (1) A BRAHMS database on plants of Ghana that includes data associated with plant specimens in the collections of the Department of Plant and Environmental Biology of University of Ghana, Resource Support Management Centre (RSMC) of Ghana Forestry Commission, Aburi Botanic Gardens, and Centre for Plant Medicine Research (CPMR), Ghana and (2) records of plants collected from Ghana downloaded from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) data portal (http://data.gbif.org/countries/Ghana).
Arguably, such specimen dataset cannot be omitted when addressing large-scale issues concerning biodiversity in Ghana due to its numerous usability such as prioritizing areas for conservation, assessing geographic potential for species invasions, and understanding ecological and evolutionary processes.
Biodiversity in Ghana Gaps
Despite the many applications this database could be used for, there are inherent knowledge gaps that can affect directly the fitness-for-use of the data for biodiversity outputs.
First is Seasonal Gaps in which there is an uneven or disproportionate specimen collection between seasons. For example, Alex Asase and Townsend Peterson reported in their study titled “Completeness of Digital Accessible Knowledge of the Plants of Ghana” that seasonal patterns in Ghana’s herbarium records showed that most records were from the dry season (October to December), whereas the fewest records were from the rainy season (June to August). Secondly, there was a rapid increase in the numbers of data records between 1940 and 1980, but decreasing numbers of records thereafter which has created what is termed a Historical Gap. The data also showed an overwhelming tendency towards concentration of records in Southern Ghana indicating a huge gap for Northern Ghana species.
Lastly there is a taxonomic gap in Ghana’s herbarium collection resulting from uneven distribution of species and genera among various plant families. For example, the most represented plant family in the collections is leguminosae-papilionaceae with 365 species compared with Orchidaceae, Rhodophyceae, Leguminosae-caesalpinaceae, Apocynaceae and Poaceae which were plant families poorly represented.
Filling in the gaps
The fastest way to improve upon the database is to fill these data gaps for the data to be fit-for-use for strategic national policies towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at ending poverty and protecting the planet. In other words, the herbarium database, when complete without gaps, will play a significant role in addressing large-scale biodiversity issues due to its numerous usability such as prioritizing areas for conservation, assessing geographic potential for species invasions, and understanding ecological and evolutionary processes such as extinction.
One way to fill these gaps is to continue the enterprise of collection of new biodiversity materials especially in the wet season and in areas identified as under collected like the Northern sector of Ghana. In view of this, the Centre for Plant Medicine Research at Mampong-Akuapem, has intensified efforts in scouting and collecting especially medicinal plants from the three Northern regions of Ghana to forestall plant species that have become endangered for posterity. This initiative seeks to collect and prepare voucher specimens to be stored in the Centre’s herbarium to fill in some of the gaps. The Centre also stands a chance of reaping some benefits from biodiversity data sharing and integration since its herbarium collections are now open and freely accessible online via the GBIF data portal (https://www.gbif.org/dataset).
Stakeholders and funding agencies are encouraged to support such drive towards realizing fully the Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Strategy.
Writers: Tonny Asafo-Agyei (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Michael Bremfi (email@example.com)