Cape Town - South Africa’s rhino poaching epidemic is a disaster, and the escalating killing of elephants is drawing global attention – but an even bigger biodiversity crisis is unfolding, largely under the radar of public awareness, outrage and concern.
This is the devastating loss of cycads, the oldest living seed plants on the planet, with a lineage going back some 340 million years and, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s most threatened living organisms.
Cycads were particularly abundant during the Mesozoic age, from about 252 to 66 million years ago, so they are much older than the dinosaurs, and have survived three of the five great global mass extinction events.
And although there are only 347 cycad species left today, they are still flourishing in natural areas where they are not disturbed by development and – particularly – where they’re not subject to theft and removal from the wild for the illicit garden landscaping trade.
It is probably this trade that was behind two cases of cycad theft at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden during the past fortnight, in which a total of 23 plants, conservatively worth some R700 000 in the commercial trade, were dug up and removed during the night.
One of the two cycad species involved, Encephalartos latifrons (or the Albany cycad), is critically endangered. There are probably only about 80 still growing in the wild in the Bathurst area, and because there are so few plants left they no longer reproduce naturally and have to be hand-pollinated.
The second species taken was Encephalartos caffer, the Grahamstown cycad or Rhini cycad, which is a dwarf cycad from the sour grassveld of the Eastern Cape. Although rare in the wild, it grows easily from seed.
These are among two of the 38 cycad species in just two genera that are found in South Africa – three, probably four, species are already extinct in the wild – and that are in turn among the 65 species growing in Africa.
So South Africa is an important centre of cycad diversity, says Kirstenbosch cycad curator Phakamani Xaba, a conservation research horticulturist with the SA National Biodiversity Institute, which manages our network of botanic gardens.
Because of their rarity and attractiveness as garden elements, cycads have great commercial value, particularly for “bragging rights”. When Kirstenbosch made a sucker available from its prize specimen of Encephalartos woodii that is extinct in the wild, it fetched a price of R89 000, or about R1 700 per centimetre of the plant’s circumference. “And that was considered a bargain by the buyers,” says Xaba.
(Cycads reproduce both asexually, through producing suckers that root, or sexually, through cones containing ovules that are pollinated by sperm-like swimming cells. They are dioecious, meaning individual plants are either male or female.)
When Xaba started working at Kirstenbosch some eight years ago, Encephalartos latifrons plants released for sale to the public were going at R1 500 to R1 700 per centimetre, although that has now dropped to about R900. “So if you have a plant of 10cm, it’s quite big business,” says Xaba.
Obviously, the bigger the plant, the more valuable it is, and female plants are worth more than males. So cycad poaching is big business. In January 2008, 103 extremely rare cycads valued at some R10m were stolen from the Lilly Cycad Reserve inside the Selati nature reserve in Limpopo.
But it’s not only their commercial value that is lost when plants are stolen or removed. Because of their ancient connections, cycads are extremely important scientifically.
“It’s like looking back through a window in time because we can date them back 340 million years,” says Xaba. “It’s quite an amazing period of existence, and while there are some evolutionary changes, these haven’t been drastic, as fossil records show. That’s the amazing thing, and they are very, very interesting in their reproductive biology.”
In his book Kirstenbosch: the most beautiful garden in Africa, retired Sanbi chief executive Professor Brian Huntley notes that the first director of the garden, Professor Harold Pearson, was primarily interested in gymnosperms – cycads, like conifers, are gymnosperms, as opposed to flowering plants.
So it was no surprise that one of Pearson’s first projects following the formal establishment of Kirstenbosch on July 1, 1913, was to create a cycad garden in a natural amphitheatre where he planted his collection of more than 400 cycads that had been donated from throughout South Africa.
Most of South Africa’s 38 species are represented here, and in fact some of the stolen E. latifrons are directly derived from Pearson’s plants.
This cycad amphitheatre “remains a world-class living gene bank of these ancient and remarkable plants”, Huntley writes, and he describes the illegal trade as “a botanical disaster and a national disgrace”.
He points out that one species, E inopinus, has been monitored by conservation authorities in Limpopo since 1992. They have recorded its decline from 677 individual plants in 1992, to just 81 in 2004.
“And there are unsubstantiated reports that the species might now be extinct in the wild… A classic case of going, going, gone,” Huntley writes.
“Fortunately, Sanbi has a diverse gene bank of specimens that can be used in ‘captive breeding’ programmes, possibly leading to their eventual re-establishment in their former habitats.
“But, as (Sanbi chief director: biodiversity research, information and monitoring Professor) John Donaldson’s research has shown… restoration projects are far more complex than merely planting nursery-grown specimens back in the wild.
“Cycads remain the most critically threatened plant group in the world.”
Xaba says he and other experts are currently busy with cycad surveys as the basis for conservation and recovery programmes for all the local species.
“The Department of Environmental Affairs is spearheading this cycad recovery strategy and the minister has made it quite a priority. All interested parties involved, including the Cycad Society, provincial authorities and the botanical gardens, even the SA Hunters Association have come on board,” says Xaba.
“There is a groundswell starting to try to save the cycads and to create more awareness about them in general, but it’s difficult because they are very, very small compared to the rhinos.
“Cycads are not getting the same attention as rhinos, and currently I don’t think we are as organised as the rhino lobby. But maybe that’s changing slowly now, as we get more information about cycads and are able publicise them.”
Understandably, Xaba is reluctant to give any details of upgraded security that is being put in to guard the invaluable cycad collection at Kirstenbosch, following the recent heists.
But he does reveal one measure: the use of micro-dotting, similar to that used in the vehicle industry, that involves spraying the stems of individual plants with up to 100 or more minuscule dots about 1mm in size, and containing individual identity codes.
Microchip implants that were used previously weren’t completely effective because they could be found relatively easily with metal detectors, he explains.
“So micro-dotting is one of the breakthroughs we’ve had here at Kirstenbosch. We had such good results that we’re also going to mark Uganda’s wild plants, following my recent visit there. It works really well and we can trace the plant exactly to where it was taken from.”
And Xaba is hoping that information about who was responsible for the heists may still emerge.
“We’re looking, and the cycad community is small, so ja, maybe someone will say something,” he says.