National

Cape hit in cycad heist

David Smith

The world's oldest seed plants are highly desirable to collectors, making them - and the Kirstenbosch gardens - prime targets for cycad poachers.

The plants stolen from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden last month included 22 critically endangered Albany cycads. (Adam Harrower)

They are 340-million years old, outlived the dinosaurs and survived mass extinction in three global catastrophes. But cycads, the world’s oldest seed plants, are under threat from obsessive collectors.

In two separate incidents in August, thieves stole 24 cycads worth an estimated R700 000 from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Twenty-two were on the critically endangered list.

Experts say the thefts point to a lucrative international trade run by criminal syndicates that link poachers, often poor and desperate, to wealthy private collectors who prize cycads in the same way as a rare stamp or first edition of a book.

Little is known about the extent of cycad trafficking or exactly who is fuelling it. Poachers know they are unlikely to be caught. There are fears that, if current trends continue, these ancient, scientifically important plants could become extinct.

Cycads do not produce flowers or fruit but rely on huge seed cones and beetles for pollination. Only 347 species are left today, 38 in South Africa. Some species have disappeared from their natural habitats and are protected in gardens such as Kirstenbosch.

Reward for information
In last month’s raids, 24 plants were removed during the night. The Cycad Society of South Africa is offering a R10 000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in the crime.

The stolen plants included 22 critically endangered Albany cycads, of which only about 80 are thought to be still growing in the wild. Albany is seen as Kirstenbosch’s flagship species, having been introduced in 1913 by the garden’s first director, Professor Harold Pearson.

The loss was also a blow because Phakamani Xaba, a senior horticulturist at Kirstenbosch, had been studying the plants for a research project in collaboration with Kew Gardens in London.

Cycads grow slowly; a long stem can take the best part of a millennium to grow. They are hardy and can be left out of the ground for months. This also makes them an easy target.

“They get poached so much because they are easy to transport. The thieves would remove all the leaves then dig them out,” Xaba said.

Poachers have been active across South Africa for years, possibly supplying collectors within the country, although Xaba is aware of collections in Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.

A cycad is a hugely desirable collector’s item. When Kirstenbosch sold a sucker from its prize specimen of Encephalartos woodii at auction last year, it fetched R89 000. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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