Director, Plant Conservation, World Wildlife Fund-U.S., Washington, D.C., and Research Associate, Harvard Botanical Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Many of the initial international wildlife conservation efforts focused on attractive species of endangered mammals—the so-called charismatic megafauna. Although a number of these programs have proven to be extremely successful, the modus operandi was clearly not entirely applicable to the conservation of all organisms: “Save the Sedges!” is just not as stirring a battle cry as “Save the Tiger!” We cannot save the pandas, however, unless we save the bamboos on which they feed. Furthermore, human existence is much more dependent on the plant kingdom than on animals. Plants are indeed the roots of life.
Because of the sheer diversity of plant life—especially in the tropics—many conservationists in the recent past have had some difficulty trying to decide where to begin. Faced with an area like the Amazon, home to tens of thousands of species of plants, many of which have yet to be discovered by modern scientists, it is clearly impractical to evaluate the conservation status and potential utility of each species on an individual basis. Consequently, there has been a perceptible shift in emphasis toward plants that are either useful or potentially useful to people. The concept of protecting a plant because it shows promise for aiding human well-being seems to have a much wider appeal than preserving a species for purely aesthetic or academic purposes.
Conservationists generally divide useful plants into three categories: medicinal, agricultural, and industrial. Of these three groupings, medicinal plants tend to attract the most attention from the media. There is no denying the appeal of the modern ethnobotanist’s ventures into the jungle to work with witch doctors to find healing herbs. Due to a variety of factors—factors that are expected to change in