If you have had a cycad stolen from your garden, it is among scores in South Africa that are falling victim to the illicit trade in one of the oldest living seed plants.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that cycads are 300-million years old. That means the cycad survived three mass extinctions on Earth, but today 80% are at risk of being wiped out.
“Unfortunately, cycad species can be very slow-growing, with some estimated to have a generation time of more than 500 years. This means that populations take a very long time to recover if adult plants are removed, for instance for private collections,” the IUCN said.
While wild cycad trafficking is more common in the illicit trade, even residents who have permits to plant them domestically are feeling the pinch of criminal demand for the living fossils.
Krysia van der Vyver, who lives in Kibler Park in the south of Johannesburg, said the cycad in her garden went missing years ago.
She is among scores of people in South Africa who are required to have permits for the possession of a cycad in their garden or for artificial propagation.
“They are good plants; the roots grow straight down so you never have to worry about damaging anything — and they cost a lot,” she said.
Kibler Park, which is situated at the foot of the Kliprivier Nature Reserve, had scores of people growing cycads in their gardens before it was hit by illicit criminal activity.
Trading in cycads is against the law in South Africa. Cycads belong to the species Encephalartos and are on the red list for risk of extinction.
In addition to being desired by collectors, the plant is widely used for decorative, medicinal and cultural purposes across Africa.
“Since 2003, two cycad species have become extinct in the wild. Both of these were from South Africa, where illegal removal from the wild for private collections is an ongoing problem,” the IUCN said.
Traffic, the flora and fauna trade monitoring network, said South Africa remains a hotspot for the illegal trade in cycads.
“This is principally because of severe over-harvesting to supply private horticultural collections,” the IUCN’s Simon Stuart said.
In the case of the cycad and other trafficked plants and animals, it is precisely the rarity that makes the global trade worth millions.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust, supported by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Combating Wildlife Trafficking, is leading a project to conserve South Africa’s cycad species.
The organisations are working in close partnership with South African law enforcement agencies and universities. Their activities include barcoding the plants’ DNA and developing a system to identify the species.
“Other components of the project include installing camera traps to detect any activity near known cycads, developing identification books for law enforcement officers and working with landowners and other stakeholders to raise awareness to protect wild cycads in their natural habitat,” the USFWS said.
During a visit to the project in 2020, programme officer Tatiana Hendrix described seeing cycads in the wild as stepping back in time and experiencing geologic history.“There is really nothing else like them on the planet. They’re charismatic megaflora, the elephant of plants,” she said.
Earlier this year, researchers warned that a new threat was a growing concern for the cycad species in South Africa — an insect. The invasive cycad aulacaspis, a south east Asian scale insect capable of killing a cycad population in three months, has been identified by conservationists.
researchers at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology have now developed a mapping tool to save the species from the threat of invasive species. “We’ve mapped the regions in South Africa where this pest might flourish. This data can aid conservation enthusiasts, researchers and horticulturalists to monitor and initiate appropriate action when the cycad aulacaspis scale insect is observed,” the researchers said.
“We looked for the potential areas for pest establishment under present and future climate scenarios.”
Using identified areas already hit by the invasive threat, researchers Kanle Kanle Satishchandra Nitin and Sjirk Geerts collected information about temperature, relative humidity, phenology and soil moisture that aids the establishment of the bug. This helped them model climatic conditions that may help the critically endangered species.
Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa