Airport thieves steal priceless images

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BAGGAGE BLUES: Author Douglas Goode is offering a reward for the return of the cycad pictures. Picture: Marilyn Bernard

An American and South African researcher – who spent R70 000 travelling around the country to research endangered cycads – are distraught after all their work was stolen while flying from King Shaka International to OR Tambo International.

Such is their desperation to have the priceless pictures returned that the team – South African artist and author Douglas Goode and Karen Sternberg, a cycad enthusiast and nursery owner in the US – has offered a reward of R10 000.

They fear their work, much of it irreplaceable, may have “vaporised” after two cameras with more than a thousand pictures went missing from a suitcase between Durban and Johannesburg airports last week.

But it is not the cameras that they are ultimately after, but the irreplaceable footage and the pictures of rare cycads stored on them. The contents of the cameras are worth more than R70 000, more than the equipment itself.

“It’s a loss you can’t even begin to describe. The money that it costs doesn’t even come into it,” said Goode.

The two began research trips more than three months ago, driving 21 000km in search of cycads.

“Certain pictures cannot be taken again,” Goode said. “For example in the Drakensberg, we came across seeds floating in pools of water. The water would flow away and deposit the seeds elsewhere. We know that; we’ve seen it. But, now we don’t have pictures showing that.”

A devastated Sternberg said that the photographs were irreplaceable.

“The future of cycads in habitat in South Africa is tenuous and the massive loss is tragic as it signifies the loss of historical and natural treasures that 50 years ago flourished in South Africa,” she said.

Sternberg, from Vista, California, had departed from King Shaka International Airport on an SAA flight to Johannesburg at 3.40pm on Thursday last week.

“I checked in two pieces of luggage at Durban. As I was about to board, I had two carry-on bags, a small blue suitcase and a large bag. Both pieces qualified and were acceptable in size and weight to be brought on to the plane,” she said.

“When I reached the top of the ramp, at least 10 pieces of luggage were left next to two SAA employees, standing to my left. One employee told me pointedly, ‘You will not be able to bring that suitcase on board. The plane is full. There is no room in the overhead compartments.’”

When she picked up her suitcase in Johannesburg, the camera bag and books inside appeared undisturbed. “This blue suitcase was in my possession the entire remaining extent of the trip. It was never required to be checked in from this point on,” Sternberg said.

“I arrived in San Diego (on Friday). Once home I opened up the blue suitcase, tilted up the camera bag and, to my utter horror, discovered that both my Canon digital camera and Sony video camcorder were missing.”

Goode spoke to several SAA employees in Durban.

“He was told that nothing could be done. He is not the owner of the stolen items and thus an investigation would not begin based on his statements. A police investigation cannot be instigated as I live (17 600km) away,” Sternberg said.

She contacted SAA and was told to fill in a form on-line.

The research had started in the Durban area and ventured into the Eastern Cape, Namibia, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg.

“From Karen’s trip two years ago, we noticed that a couple of hundred plants were missing,” Goode said.

Sternberg and Goode walked up to 25km to get the perfect shots.

“Karen even got tick-bite fever along the way and fell during a climb, but she soldiered on,” he said.

Cycads, he said, were highly collectible and dated back to the Mesozoic era (245-266 million years ago). In Africa there are 70 species, which made it easy for enthusiasts to collect them all. On the black market, he said, they sold for up to R1.5 million.

SAA spokeswoman, Dileseng Koetle, said that the airline regretted Sternberg’s experience.

“We certainly share the same sentiment that her loss of precious pictures is indeed priceless.”

Koetle said “syndicated operations” constantly sought and found ways to breach their efforts.

A spokeswoman for Airports Company South Africa, Unathi Batyashe-Fillis, said that she would liaise with security at OR Tambo to try to find out what happened. - Daily News

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