Johannesburg — Eighty-three percent of Madagascar's palm species - which are a vital source of both food and building materials - are threatened by extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) latest Red List of Threatened Species, published on 17 October.
Madagascar hosts 192 species of palms unique to the island. They are used by communities for constructing houses - providing both thatching and timber - as well for crafting everyday utensils and making medicines.
William Baker, chair of the IUCN's palm specialist group and head of palm research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, London, told IRIN that palm hearts are a "substantial" source of nutrition throughout the world.
"For people living in remote, rural communities, palm hearts are a highly valued food source - and they are free. I don't know if there is a connection to declining sources of food, but in remote areas with inadequate soils or agricultural practices, palm hearts are an important supplement," he said.
Palm hearts are low in fat, provide fibre, and are a source of protein, potassium, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc.
"Our perception is that palm utilization is now unsustainable for many species, and this is compounded by ongoing habitat loss due primarily to slash-and-burn agriculture. Whereas once palm exploitation must have been sustainable, the balance has now tipped as pressure increases on a decreasing area of habitat and remaining palms. So we are in a nasty feedback cycle of people threatening palms, and diminishing palms threatening livelihoods," Baker said.
Poverty rates in Madagascar have been on the rise since 2009, when twice-elected president Marc Ravalomanana was deposed by Andry Rajoelina with the backing of the army. More than three quarters of the country's 20 million people now live on less than US$1 a day, according to government figures, up from 68 percent before the coup d'etat. In rural areas, poverty rates are estimated at more than 80 percent.
Threatened and endangered
One species of palm, Ravenea delicatula is considered by IUCN to be "critically endangered". It is "known from just one site, but the site is not protected and it is being threatened by local people clearing the forest to cultivate hill rice, and by miners looking for minerals and gems such as rubies."
The recently identified Tahina Palm (Tahina spectabilis), also known as the Suicide Palm, has joined the threatened species list for the first time, with only 30 known mature palms growing in the wild.
"The majority of Madagascar's palms grow in the island's eastern rain forests, which have already been reduced to less than one quarter of their original size and which continue to disappear," Baker said.
"The figures on Madagascar's palms are truly terrifying, especially as the loss of palms impacts both the unique biodiversity of the island and its people," Jane Smart, IUCN's biodiversity conservation global director, said in statement. "This situation cannot be ignored."
The depletion of Madagascar's palms is "likely to have a significant effect on an ecological network. Degradation of forests by logging and so on is a real problem for palms because they are vulnerable when establishing and most will germinate and mature only under a forest canopy," Baker said.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations