Cape Town - Brazen thieves struck at the heart of Kirstenbosch on Monday night, making off with 13 of the world-famous garden’s critically endangered cycads with a conservative commercial value of at least R200 000.
But the conservation value of these plants, grown from seed harvested from cycads planted a century ago by founding director Professor Harold Pearson, when the garden was still being established, is much greater.
Cycad curator Phakamani Xaba, a conservation research horticulturist with the SA National Biodiversity Institute, said the plants were the flagship species of the collection.
They were all Encephalartos latifrons, or the Albany cycad. Found only in the Bathurst area of the Eastern Cape, there are fewer than 100 of these plants – and probably only about 80 – still growing in the wild where they no longer reproduce naturally.
“It doesn’t recruit (naturally) in the wild because they are so far apart from each other, so we have to hand-pollinate it,” Xaba explains.
“And here at Kirstenbosch we have the largest ex situ conservation project. It’s our flagship species, definitely. We’ve got about 32 plants now. Originally we had 16 plants that were brought in by Professor Pearson, so some of these specimens have been here since 1913.”
The propagation programme for this species was initially not very successful, with less than 10 percent seed viability, Xaba says.
“My predecessor John Winter, who curated the collection, was also baffled by this problem, so I decided when I took over the collection to delve more into the problem, and we structured it into a proper scientific study.”
That study was in the form of a Master’s thesis through UWC that Xaba is about to hand in, and he’s cracked the problem.
But even though this has allowed Kirstenbosch to push seed viability up to 50 percent, E.latifrons is still very much on the critically endangered list because it grows so slowly. “And because they’re so slow-growing, they are really prized as well, sadly,” he says.
“When I started here they were worth about R1 500 to R1 700 a centimetre (of the core circumference), so if you have a plant that’s 10cm, it’s quite big business. And actually this is the direct cause of the threat to them, because people want them so much.”
The theft is a blow, Xaba says.
“It’s not just the monetary value – conservatively, about R200 000 worth – it’s about the patience and tender loving care, and all the information and data we have on those plants and that we would have had (into the future).
“They were seed-grown and we wanted to see them eventually coning. This takes a while. The quickest (cycad) plant in our collection that can cone takes about 15 years, roughly. But that is very, very quick, and latifrons is probably one of the slowest growing of all of them.
“So it was an interesting experiment that we had, because all of the plants are monitored individually.”
Xaba says he believes all 13 plants, ranging in age from 11 to 23 years and only planted into the garden three years ago, were taken in a single night.
“Those people were really organised – they knew exactly what they were looking for, they were obviously professionals.”
Police were called and the theft is now the subject of a criminal investigation.