Saving the cycads from poaching

One of South Africa’s most threatened plant species needs your help! Cycads, which date back 280 million years are under increasing threat from the illegal trade and harvesting of these plants from the wild, as well as habitat destruction, use in traditional practices and threats from alien vegetation.

Enter the Botanical Society of South Africa (BOTSOC) – they realised that while the world is intently focused on the plight of our rhinos, elephants and other threatened wildlife species, the plight of the cycads is largely unheard of.

We met up with Zaitoon Rabaney, Executive Director of BOTSOC at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, to find out more.

cycads, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa
So, how were they going to change this?

BOTSOC have come up with a ‘Save the Cycads’ educational campaign – a programme developed for schools and other learning institutes that provides teachers the materials and resources they need to incorporate the importance of endangered plant species into the curriculum.

what are cycads poster, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa
A bit of history… and dinosaurs

Cycads were common during the Jurassic period, the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, up until 65 million years ago when a massive asteroid struck earth and brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with three quarters of all life on our planet. But the cycads survived!

Dinosaurs and cycads poster, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa

South Africa has been recognised as one of the global hotspots for cycad diversity. The country has 38 cycad species (37 species of Encephalartos and one species of Strangeria).

Cycads are characterised by their unique appearance: they have a trunk, leaves and cones, all of which are covered with stiff, sharp spines. Cycads will either be male or female and when they are in a reproductive condition they bear large cones.

Cycads, dinosaur sculpture, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa

Cycads and dinosaurs at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa

Today, cycads are the most threatened group of living organisms, and they could soon share the same fate as the dinosaurs, but what threatens their survival is no catastrophic asteroid strike but the greed and selfishness of mankind.

Dinosaurs and cycads poster, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa

To put it into perspective, Zaitoon tells us that “Our cycads are rarer than the rhino and are more endanger of extinction”.

Dinosaur, cycads, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa
Cycad numbers

This unique and ancient plant has fallen victim to poaching at frightening levels. Of South Africa’s 38 cycad species, three are extinct in the wild, 12 are critically endangered, four are endangered, nine are vulnerable and seven are near threatened.

Dinosaur, cycads, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, South Africa

The biggest threat facing cycads is the poaching of plants from the wild to supply domestic and international trade.

In South Africa, the indigenous Encephalartos cycad species is protected under provincial legislation and/or the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004. But times call for more hands-on measures, the BOTSOC ‘Save our Cycad’ educational campaign will be used across the board throughout the country, and will align itself with strategy management plans nationwide.

The educational programme is set to launch later this year.

There is an urgent need for South Africa to focus its attention on cycads, in order to prevent further extinctions and to allow for the recovery of overexploited wild cycad populations. By signing up for a free MySchool card and selecting BOTSOC as one of your beneficiaries you will be helping to raise funds for their awareness programmes. Save the plants!

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  • Raymond Lautenbach

    O.K. I’m about to put my foot in it. I have for years harboured the notion that SANBI, BOTSOC and large commercial growers and particularly the exporters of these plants are to blame.
    I know that a number of botanical gardens have been plundered in recent years and I have not seen or heard of any prosecutions or arrests for these thefts. I believe that historically the above mentioned organisations had a responsibility to harvest and propagate seed to make plants locally commercially available. I think this was done on a limited scale but the “rarer” varieties were not or never made available to the public. I have only ever seen Lebomboensis and Transvenosous for sale in any number. Just my limited experience and opinion.
    The seed or pollen of the plants held by institutions and privately held mature plants in collections could also have been used to make more plants available to the public at reasonable prices. The export of these plants should have been stopped years ago and as far as I am aware nothing has been done in this regard.
    Mature plants produce large amounts of seed and where plants produced from these seeds go I really don’t know. I believe that “scarcity” is artificially created to bolster prices. It is the inflated prices of the “scarcer” varieties that encourage theft and the prices obtained on the export market that are the biggest part of the problem. (I don’t know what these prices are but if Clivia are anything to go by then the sky is the limit) It is my opinion that this educational programme will have little success.

    “This unique and ancient plant has fallen victim to poaching at frightening levels. Of South Africa’s 38 cycad species, three are extinct in the wild, 12 are critically endangered, four are endangered, nine are vulnerable and seven are near threatened.” These are hollow words that have been repeated over and over again over the years.
    The scarcity of plants and the poor choice of the words “unique and ancient” only serve as encouragement for the theft of plants from the wild and gardens. The poaching problem has been with these plants for years and I don’t see this programme doing much to stop it.

    The constant threatening of people who have purchased plants from nurseries or whatever other legal growers exist is also not helpful. The owners of these plants that may have reached maturity over the years are discouraged by the legislation to propagate plants either for their own use or sale. A more open trade in these plants would probably in hindsight have been more beneficial. Punishing and threatening backyard growers with more and more legislation and punishment is not going to help the problem. These people actually have the potential to alleviate part of the problem
    I await the severe criticism for my comments as I am sure there are other opinions.

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