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They outlived the dinosaurs, but can prized cycads survive poacher raids?: Endangered plants stolen from botanical gardens Thefts thwart efforts at research and propagation

September 2, 2014

David Smith Johannesburg

They are 340 million years old, outlived the dinosaurs and survived mass extinction in three global catastrophes. But cycads, the world's oldest seed plants, are under threat from obsessive collectors.

In two separate incidents in August, thieves stole 24 cycads worth an estimated 700,000 rand (pounds 40,000) from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Twenty-two were on the critically endangered list.

Experts say the thefts point to a lucrative international trade run by criminal syndicates that link poachers, often poor and desperate, to wealthy private collectors who prize cycads in the same way as a rare stamp or first edition of a book.

Little is known about the extent of cycad trafficking or exactly who is fuelling it. Poachers know they are unlikely to be caught. There are fears that, if current trends continue, these ancient, scientifically important plants could become extinct.

Cycads do not produce flowers or fruit but rely on huge seed cones and beetles for pollination. Many contain dangerous neurotoxins or carcinogens, along with spiky leaves sharp enough to draw blood.

Only 347 species are left today, 38 in South Africa. Some species have disappeared from their natural habitats and are protected in gardens such as Kirstenbosch, where horticulturists can harness genetic material to help revive wild populations.

In last month's raids, 24 plants were dug up and removed during the night. Police have opened an investigation and the Cycad Society of SA is offering a 10,000 rand reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in the crime.

The stolen plants included 22 critically endangered Albany cycads, of which only about 80 are thought to be still growing in the wild. Albany is seen as Kirstenbosch's flagship species, having been introduced in 1913 by the garden's first director, professor Harold Pearson. The loss was also a blow because Phakamani Xaba, a senior horticulturist at Kirstenbosch, had been studying the plants for a research project in collaboration with Kew Gardens in London.

"The thefts impact heavily on our research and conservation work. These plants belong to South Africans at large," Xaba said. "Kirstenbosch is just the custodian of them."

Cycads are slow growing; a long stem can take the best part of a millennium. They are also hardy and can be left out of the ground for months. This also makes them an easy target.

"One of the reasons they get poached so much is they are easy to transport. The thieves would remove all the leaves then dig them out. They don't have a complex root system," Xaba said.

Poachers have been active across South Africa for years, possibly supplying collectors within the country, although Xaba is aware of collections in Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.

Kirstenbosch has beefed up its security measures, including spraying the stems of plants with tiny dots containing individual identity codes, but the deeper scourge remains. It is harder to mobilise action around cycads than rhinos, of which 1,004 were poached in South Africa last year to meet demand for horn in east Asia. Rhinos are visible to tourists in Kruger park and private reserves, where some cycads can no longer be seen in their original habitat.

Professor John Donaldson, chief director of applied biodiversity at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, said: "In contrast to the rhinos and elephants, where there's been a lot of investment in trying to understand the network and where it's going, we know far less about the poaching of plants.

"There is evidence of several thousand plants going out from the wild in the past couple of years. We don't know where they're going."

A cycad is a hugely desirable collector's item. When Kirstenbosch sold a sucker from its prize specimen of Encephalartos woodii at auction last year, it fetched 89,000 rand.

Donaldson warned that most of South Africa's "endangered" and "critically endangered" cycads had declined by between 50% and 90% in the past 20 years. "We are extremely concerned about quite a few of the cycad species. Several in South Africa are now classified extinct in the wild."

The institute is working with government agencies, the private sector and other interest groups to draw up a cycad conservation strategy that should be finalised by early next year.

Traffic, an organisation monitoring the global wildlife trade, has previously called for a blanket ban on the trade in cycads. In 2010, the European Union imposed a ban on trade in cycads from South Africa.

Slow-growing cycads, which look similar to ferns, do not produce flowers or fruit but reproduce using huge seed pods


Kirstenbosch botanic gardens on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain was twice raided by poachers last month Photograph: Richard l'Anson/Lonely Planet/Getty

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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