Plant blindness and the illegal wildlife trade

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘wildlife’? Almost certainly an animal—and perhaps that’s a problem.

Even as illegal trade in wildlife now receives considerable attention in conservation circles, not much attention is paid to species-jeopardizing illegal trade in plants.

This is “a latest manifestation of plant blindness” and could have “serious and detrimental effects for biodiversity conservation,” write researchers led by Jared Margulies, a political ecologist at the University of Alabama, in the journal Plants, People, Planet.

Coined in 1999 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and Frank Wandersee, the term ‘plant blindness’ refers to how people tend not to notice plants—and, when they do, to value them far less than animals. Studies show that people in contemporary societies better remember images of animals than plants; even nature lovers who know hundreds of animal species can often identify just a few trees or flowers, much less mosses or ferns.

Plant blindness is blamed for a decline in botanical research and a general inattention to plant conservation. In the United States, plants account for 57 percent of endangered species, yet receive just 4 percent of federal endangered species funding. On a global scale, less than 8 percent of all plants have been formally assessed to determine whether they’re threatened, compared to 68 percent of vertebrates.

That inattention prevails even as trade in wild plants flourishes. Human appetite for timber, essential oils, medicine, and ornaments has imperiled some 900 tree species, many hundreds of orchids, and roughly 15 percent of all cacti. Even legal trade in wild plants—a $3 billion industry—is notoriously opaque; illegal trade is vast and almost invisible.

Yet even as the illegal wildlife trade receives more and more attention from policymakers and conservationists, write Margulies and colleagues, “these efforts are largely plant blind, ignoring plants in both policy and research.”

Of 265 peer-reviewed journal articles published between 1995 and 2019, the researchers could find only 26 that addressed plants. High-profile meetings focus almost exclusively on animals, with flora represented mostly in talks on illegal timber harvest. It was only in 2018 that plant-related projects became eligible to receive support from the United Kingdom’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge.

Margulies’ team doesn’t argue that animals deserve less attention. The plight of creatures like pangolins and elephants and tigers, brutally slaughtered for their body parts or imprisoned and sold into captivity, is a terrible thing indeed. And the knowledge that these animals suffer both physically and emotionally adds urgency to the cause. But plants certainly deserve more regard than they now receive.

One way to achieve that is to challenge how wildlife is defined—both conversationally and often legally—in animal-centered ways. “Why is it that the notion of ‘wildlife’ connotes big megafauna,” says Margulies, “rather than the multitudes of nonhuman lives constantly around them?”

His team suggests that drawing attention to emerging research on plant behavior, which has documented capacities for learning and communication that in animals are recognized as evidence of intelligence, could help expand how people think about flora.

This idea may ruffle some feathers, as it’s not clear that plants possess the cognitive qualities—especially the capacity to suffer—that make animals subjects of moral regard. Still, it might at least encourage people to think differently of plants than they do now.

It is “appropriate to consider this ‘blindness’ as symptomatic of a particular sociocultural and historical trajectory rather than a problem of inevitable permanence,” write Margulies and colleagues. In other words, we’re plant-blind—but we don’t have to stay that way.

Source: Margulies et al. “Illegal wildlife trade and the persistence of ‘plant blindness.’” Plants, People, Planet 2019. 

Image: GIFER

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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