The Walter Sisulu National Botinical Garden in Roodepoort is now Micro-chipping its 350 Cycads plants to protect them from thieves.011 Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Cape Town - Kirstenbosch staff have stepped up their programme to protect their valuable cycad population and have installed sensors coupled to alarms around the cycad area, and are microdotting all the plants.

The hi-tech intervention on these ancient plants is considered essential after poachers stole about a dozen on a rainy night last July. They came back in August and stole more cycads, bringing the total number lost to 24. The Hawks were called in and NGOs offered a R10 000 reward, but it seems the trail has gone cold.

Cycads have been around for millions of years, but it has taken just a blip in geological time for humans to push them towards extinction by plundering the slow-growing plants to feed the multimillion- dollar illegal collectors’ trade.

The loss of the Kirstenbosh cycads amounted to hundreds of thousands of rand, but the loss to conservation was greater as most of the plants stolen were the critically endangered Albany cycads, almost extinct in the wild.

Now each cycad is being marked by microdots, about 1mm in size, which contain individual identity codes showing they come from Kirstenbosch.

These microdots, similar to those used in vehicles to prevent theft, are sprayed onto the plants, about 100 or more on each plant.

Micro-chip implants were abandoned as they could be found easily with metal detectors.

Kirstenbosch horticulturist and cycad curator Phakamani Xaba said that staff had started the cycad micro-dotting as a pilot project about three years ago in the gardens and in the wild. However, it was a full-blown project now.

“We’ve accelerated the project, we’re doing everything we can since the thefts.”

But it was an expensive operation and procuring funds was a slow process.

Xaba said the Hawks had followed a lead to Gauteng, but had not come back with anything conclusive. “Sadly there have been no arrests. And the longer it is, the more likely the trail runs cold.”

The raid was well planned. The thieves took smaller plants, cut off the fronds for easier packing and targeted the critically endangered Albany cycad (Encephalartos latifrons). Because of the Albany’s rarity, collectors all over the world pay high prices in the illegal trade. They also took two Grahamstown cycads (Encephalartos caffer).

The cycad garden at Kirstenbosch was established by its first director, Harold Pearson, in 1913. He planted more than 400 cycads species from around South Africa.

Cycads have been labelled “living fossils”, but research led by the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, published in 2011, suggests that while there were cycads growing 270 million years ago – long before dinosaurs appeared – those we see today are not unchanged leftovers from that time. Researchers say DNA testing showed that today’s cycads are a “second wave” which evolved about 10 million years ago.

Cape Times