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National treasure at risk

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Cape Town – Cycads, which appeared well before dinosaurs roamed the planet, are so rare and threatened that they are being artificially pollinated and grown in laboratories.

A large cycad can sell for up to R400 000, which is why they are targeted by poachers and collectors.

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Feebearing - Cape Town - 150327 - The Cape Argus takes a walk though the Kirstenbosch Cycad Living Plants Collection with curator uPhakamani M' Afika Xaba to learn more about the new research being done to try and re-establish some of the endangered species. Pictured: uPhakamani in the Cycad amphitheatre. REPORTER: HELEN BAMFORD. PICTURE: WILLEM LAW.

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden has been forced to beef up its security after thieves broke in on two occasions last year, stealing 24 cycads worth some R700 000. There has been no sign of the plants in spite of a R10 000 reward being offered.

The cycads are now being protected using microdots, each of which contains an individualised reference code showing it originated from Kirstenbosch.

The minuscule dots can only be seen under UV lights. There are also sensors and beams in the cycad amphitheatre at Kirstenbosch and extra security guards.

Kirstenbosch cycad curator uPhakamani Xaba said unscrupulous collectors were probably the biggest threat to cycads, although habitat destruction and a muti market also played a role.

The rarer the species the higher the value. For instance, the Encephalartos latifrons (Albany cycad) found near Grahamstown, is critically endangered and it was these that the thieves stole last year.

There are believed to be only about 80 still growing in the wild.

Xaba said they were seen as Kirstenbosch’s flagship species, some of which were donated in 1913 by the garden’s first director, Professor Harold Pearson.

He said it had been a big loss for such a threatened species.

However, he said they had made a breakthrough with research on resolving low seed viability for cycads.

Xaba, in collaboration with Professor John Donaldson (head of Applied Biodiversity at the South African National Botanical Institute) and others, headed up research into low seed viability of the species, which although had been cultivated for more than 100 years at Kirstenbosch, had never done well.

The team experimented with various methods of artificial pollination to determine which would ultimately be more effective.

They also looked at factors such as seed handling methods and storage.

The research finally led them to identify that it was the difference in artificial pollination methods that had the most impact. Xaba explained that one method was wet – the pollen was mixed with distilled water and injected into the cone when receptive for pollination. This was compared to dry pollination, during which pollen was squirted with a pump, which was found to be a far better option.

Xaba has teamed up with Kew Gardens in London for several projects including one where cycads are being grown in a laboratory. Once fertilisation produces a zygote, it is captured before it differentiates into an embryo. This means that with the help of hormones, hundreds of plants will be able to be formed from it.

He said they were also looking at the cryopreservation of cycad embryos.

Kirstenbosch does supply cycads to the public through a lottery every year and everyone who buys must have a permit.

They are sold per centimetre from the cheapest known as “poor man’s cycad”, the Villosus to the Woodii which sells for around R2 000 per centimetre.

The plants take years to grow and spend up to 20 years in greenhouse nurseries before being planted in the gardens.

“The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says cycads are the world’s most threatened living organisms, even more so that the rhino,” Xaba said.

Helen Bamford, Cape Argus

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