Cape Town - 140826 - Pictured is cycad curator Phakamani Xaba (right) and cycad specialist groundsman, Mluleki Mbutse (left), pollinating a Encephalartos Latifrons cycad. Brazen thieves have stolen at least 23 of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens' world-famous critically endangered cycads. Picture: David Ritchie (083 652 4951)

Cape Town - The Hawks have been called in to investigate the theft of critically endangered cycad plants from Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.

And the Western Cape branch of the Cycad Society of SA is offering a R10 000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in the brazen thefts.

In two separate incidents over the past three weeks, thieves stole 24 cycads - 22 of them the critically endangered Albany cycad (Encephalartos latifrons), and two Grahamstown cycads (Encephalartos caffer).

“Both these species are indigenous to South Africa and occur in the Eastern Cape,” says uPhakamani Xaba, a conservation research horticulturist with the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) that manages the country’s network of botanic gardens, and curator of Kirstenbosch’s historic cycad collection. Xaba said there were not yet any leads in the case, but that the Hawks were investigating.

Professor John Donaldson - Sanbi’s chief director: applied biodiversity research division - said people should be aware of “the real tragedy posed by theft and illegal trading of these cycads (that are) almost extinct in nature.”

Kirstenbosch represented one of the largest known conservation collections of cycads and had been used to source genetic material for re-establishing wild populations, for research, and to provide plants for collectors in an effort to reduce pressure on wild populations. The thefts undermined all these activities, he said.

“The theft also highlights the huge problem posed by illegal cycad trade in South Africa. Many South Africans are aware of rhino poaching… but most South Africans probably won’t know that the majority of our ‘endangered’ and ‘critically endangered’ cycads have declined by 50 to 90 percent in the past 20 years, and there are already several species classified as ‘extinct in the wild’.”

The major cause “by far” of cycad decline and extinction in South Africa was poaching and the illegal trade, and Sanbi was working with government agencies, the private sector and other interest groups to overcome this “scourge”, Donaldson added.

Urging people to support Sanbi’s efforts to protect cycads, he said: “As South Africans we should all be able to appreciate these magnificent plants in the wild and in our national botanical gardens, and we must join together to fight against poaching and illegal trade to achieve this aim.”

Secretary Ian Bassingthwaighte said cycads had been “virtually cleaned out” of their natural habitats, and that plants in national botanical gardens in Gauteng and Mpumalanga had also been stolen in the past.

“It’s terrible. And in the Durban botanical garden a couple of years ago, a very rare species was stolen.”

Thieves were “very seldom” caught, he added, and suggested that specialist collectors overseas were often the market for the stolen plants. “There’s a big demand for our cycads overseas and big money involved.”

* Anyone with information can contact uPhakamani Xaba at 021 799 8757 or e-mail [email protected]

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Cape Argus