Rare and endangered cycad plants, often referred to as living fossils, are being stolen in South Africa at an alarming rate, with at least two species from Limpopo province having disappeared completely.
The thefts are not just confined to the wild populations; according to the National Botanical Institute (NBI), the country’s botanical gardens are also being targeted by cycad poachers.
In its latest annual report, tabled at Parliament on Monday, the institute said the numbers of these rare plants ”continue to decline in the wild and to disappear from national collections”.
This is despite what it calls ”substantial efforts” to conserve them.
Contacted for comment, the NBI’s John Donaldson, chairperson of the Cycad Specialist Group, said even the institute’s flagship Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden has lost a cycad to plant thieves.
This was a rare Albany cycad, which was big enough for the thieves to have needed at least a wheelbarrow to remove it from the garden.
The Lowveld National Botanical Garden has also ”lost quite a few cycads over the past few years”.
Donaldson said the rate of decline of some species of cycad in the wild is ”substantial”.
A helicopter survey in Limpopo province during the 1980s had revealed there were 700 specimens of one particular species of cycad. When researchers repeated the survey recently, using the same counting method, only 100 remained.
Furthermore, two other species of rare cycad have disappeared completely from the province, one of which was endemic to the region.
Donaldson said poachers in the Eastern Cape have halved the wild population of Albany cycads over the past decade — the number has dropped from more than 100 plants to about 50 individuals.
In the United States, collectors pay up to $20 000 for an Albany cycad.
Asked if the electronic identification chip inserted into many wild cycads in recent years in an effort to stop them being removed has not made collectors hesitant to steal the plants, Donaldson said such measures are ”only as good as the law enforcement”.
”So much money is being made, the poachers have worked out a way to get the chips out. I’ve heard they even X-ray the plants to find the chip, and then dig it out.”
Donaldson said South Africa’s cycads have existed, little changed, for 30-million to 40-million years.
According to the NBI report, a technique has been developed to ”fingerprint” the DNA of cycads and so improve law enforcement.
”This technology provides new tools for identifying illegal plants in trade and for improving the success of in situ conservation projects,” the report states. — Sapa