A Wealth of Endemic Species with Poor Prospects


Libro Rojo de las Plantas Endémicas del Ecuador. Valencia, R., N. Pitman, S. León-Yánez, and P. M. Jørgensen, editors. 2000. Publicaciones del Herbario QCA, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Quito, Ecuador . 489 pp. Price unknown. ISBN 9978–77–090–9.

Ecuador is a small but marvelously biodiverse country with a unique flora. At last count, 4011 ( 26% ) of its higher plant flora is endemic and 22 genera have not been recorded outside its borders. More than 50% of Ecuador's Campanulaceae and Begoniaceae are endemic, and several other plant groups have only slightly lower percentages of endemism. This is the good news. Unfortunately, an estimated 83% of Ecuador's endemic flora is threatened to some degree, and 282 endemic species are considered in critical danger of extinction. It is believed that 53 species are already extinct. The “typical” endemic species is an Andean epiphytic orchid that is not known to occur in any protected area. Although the true proportion is likely higher, only 25% of Ecuador's endemic species have been recorded in one of the country's conservation units.

The messenger of this bad news is the Libro Rojo de las Plantas Endémicas del Ecuador, an ( updated ) outgrowth of the checklist of that country's flora published in the Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador (  Jørgensen & León-Yánez 1999 ). The Libro Rojo is the result of a careful and refreshingly transparent effort to document Ecuador's endemic flora, to assess the conservation status of its endemic species, and to propose some measures to solve the problem. This is a finely grained snapshot that catches us all in flagrante delicto, allowing one of the world's most important floras to subside into progressively graver categories of endangerment as a result of what are revealed to be rather straightforward causes. The Libro Rojo is designed to become obsolete as soon as possible, but its editors intend that there be some continuation of the work it reflects.

The core of the work is a treatment of all the species determined by the editors to be endemic to Ecuador. For each endemic species, the book provides current nomenclature (synonyms must be sought in the Catalogue), references, life form, geographic distribution in the country by province, habitat(s ), elevational range, conservation status ( World Conservation Union [IUCN] category), whether it is found in a protected area, whether it is known from only one collection, which Ecuadorean herbaria house the specimens, and comments. Some of the more important families have separate introductions. Geographical distribution is not revealed for groups or species of commercial importance, such as orchids.

This core is preceded by discussions of the IUCN categories and a synthesis of the project's results. An exposition of the more recent IUCN categories is followed by interesting responses to a set of rhetorical questions. For most tropical countries especially, the parameters for determining IUCN status are difficult to measure, and the book is honest about which two criteria were used in most instances: geographical range, followed by data on habitat destruction when available. The most frequently assigned IUCN category was “vulnerable,” a cautious approach to the paucity of information available for most of the species but also a reflection of the fact that in such a small country even a relatively widespread species occurring in a limited elevational range satisfies the conditions for this category.

One map in the text shows the provinces of the country, gives the number of endemic species in each, and provides an inset showing the number of endemics in each of the four natural regions of the country—Galápagos, coastal, Andean, and Amazon. A second map shows the protected areas of the country and the number of endemic species found in each. This section is followed by an extensive bibliography and three appendices listing the endemic species organized by province, by IUCN category, and by the protected areas in which they occur ( where applicable). The book finishes with an index to the genera.

The synthesis of the results examines the patterns of endemism in Ecuador based on life form, plant group, region, and province. It ends with a discussion of conservation and ( anticlimactically) with a survey of endemic species in Ecuadorean herbaria. The text on conservation is succinct, and the points made are straightforward. But given the amount of careful work behind them, they carry a lot of weight. The recommendations ( however implicit) should be taken seriously:

  • 1Expand the Parque El Condor to a size that will protect more of the highly endemic floras of the cordilleras of Condor and Cutucú.
  • 2Establish a protected area in the vicinity of Huigra. Act to rediscover and protect the many endemic species on the slopes of Pichincha near Quito.
  • 3Establish a conservation corridor linking as well as possible the fragmented forests of the mid-elevation southwestern slopes of the Ecuadorean Andes.
  • 4Increase botanical inventory of undercollected areas and of areas neglected for many years or those where many endemics are represented by only one collection.
  • 5Study the basic ecology of those species considered in critical danger of extinction.

One recommendation is ludicrously simple, but, sadly, it always has to be mentioned: protect the protected areas.The editors should have made one additional recommendation: Ecuador needs more professional botanists. Given the situation ably presented in this volume, we suggest that Ecuador train and employ one active, professional botanist for every 200–300 threatened endemic species.

Some flaws can be found in this book. Of greatest concern is the lack of follow-up to the editors' valuable work, despite the fact that they point out that all the kinds of information contained here are in a constant state of flux, with “old” endemic species being found in other countries, new species being described, and the conservation status of known endemics changing as new localities are recorded or existing habitats are razed. The authors state the intention of maintaining a Web site, but it is not made clear in the book how they intend the information to be monitored and updated and who would do it. Some of the recommendations could have been more explicit and some more detailed. There could have been more discussion of the focal points or hotspots of endemism. The maps are not satisfactory and should have shown all the localities and focal points referred to in the text.

Other criticisms are less broad. It is somewhat misleading to indicate a species that is known from a single collection as being known from only one “population.” The editors make the valid point that endemism to Ecuador is low in the Amazon region because the national borders do not coincide with natural borders or barriers. But they fail to point out that, for similar reasons, endemism is relatively low in the coastal region. For example, the part of Ecuador north of Guayaquil belongs to the Chocó biogeographical entity that extends from Colombia into northern Ecuador and southern Panama. There seems to be a problem with Fig. 4. The text states that 83% of the endemic flora is threatened to some degree, but the figure shows 74%. Some of the passages by non-Ecuadoreans are written in awkward Spanish.

These problems detract only slightly from the value of this book, which helps rectify the imbalance in representation of threatened tropical species, calls attention to the crisis confronting one of the world's more important floras, and helps set a model for other tropical countries to follow. One last question arises: Why issue a hard-copy product that treats a constantly changing situation? The answer could be that one could bang people over the head with this tome to get them to pay attention to the alarming and useful information inside.