Madagascar has a highly distinctive flora and is one of the world biodiversity hot spots. There are more than 170 species of palms, the majority of which are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered endemics. Palms are utilized for many human uses, many of which lead to plant death or seed harvesting. Combined with reduced populations resulting from extensive forest clearing, those species which are harvested from the wild are under additional threat of extinction. Species recovery programmes have the potential to save some of the most iconic species before it is too late. This study documented the current known populations of the critically endangered palm Beccariophoenix madagascariensis, a species utilized for both local and international purposes. The study specifically investigated the genetic diversity and inbreeding within populations and the potential differentiation between populations and with the newly described species B. alfredii. We found that despite critically small population sizes there was considerable genetic diversity within populations. We also found that ecologically and or geographically distinct populations were genetically distinct. Populations within 3 km of each other exhibited considerable gene flow, probably owing to seed dispersal. The populations were inbred but reproductive viability had been maintained. Conservation and recovery options are discussed. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 154, 589–608.