22 August 2014

Cycad thieves strike in Kirstenbosch

Albany Cycad, Encephalartos latifrons, Kirstenbosch c.1915.
The recent theft of 24 cycads from Kirstenbosch (read John Yeld's article here) and the on-going plunder of cycads in the wild (read Sihle Mavuso's article on plant poachers in Isimangaliso here) has made the public a bit more aware of the plight of the cycad. Considered 'living fossils', cycads are the oldest living seed plants (remaining largely the same since the Jurassic Era, or 'Age of the Dinosaurs', 150-200 million years ago) and have survived three mass extinction events in the Earth's history.

Critically Endangered
According to the IUCN Global Cycad Assessment, 63% of all cycads are threatened with extinction. South Africa has 38 cycad species, which is about  12% of the world's cycads and more than half of the African cycads. The two cycad genera that are endemic to Africa are Encephalartos and Stangeria. We are regarded, along with Mexico and Australia, as one of the global centres of cycad diversity. But shockingly, South Africa also has three of the four species classified as Extinct in the Wild, two of which have become extinct in the period between 2003 and 2010. We have seven cycad species that have fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild. And our cycads continue to be decimated, not from habitat loss as is usually the case, but from removal by unscrupulous plant collectors and, to a lesser extent, from unsustainable harvesting for medicinal use. All this in spite of the fact that regulations to protect cycads have been in place since the 1970s and permits have been required to own, sell or transport any cycad.
One of the original Albany Cycads planted in Kirstenbosch in 1913,
and still standing today. Photo: Alice Notten. 

Stolen
Most of the cycads stolen from Kirstenbosch (22 out of 24) belonged to the critically endangered species Encephalartos latifrons one of Kirstenbosch's flagship species. This cycad, commonly known as the Albany Cycad, has declined to the point where fewer than 60 plants exist in the wild. In addition, two Grahamstown Cycads (Encephalartos caffer) were also taken. Both these species were part of a hugely valuable, living cycad collection - and part of the largest known ex-situ cycad conservation project in the world. Like all cycads, the slow-growing Encephalartos latifrons is extremely rare and the collection has provided many suckers and seedlings which have been sold to gardeners to take the pressure off the remaining wild plants. Some seedlings have also been re-planted in the wild to help the species survive.

Value
Apart from their substantial monetary value, the sentimental value of these stolen plants is significant as they were propagated from seed taken from cycads planted by the garden’s first curator Harold Pearson as early as 1913. They were aged between 11 to 23 years and were planted out in the garden three years ago. (Read about the Kirstenbosch Cycad Amphitheatre here.)

Reward
Members of the public who might have information regarding the theft of the plants are encouraged to get in touch with Kirstenbosch at 021 799 8899 or the police. In an effort to track down these plants, the Western Cape Cycad Society is offering a reward of R10 000 for any information leading to the arrest of anyone linked to theft of the cycads. For more information contact: Phakamani Xaba, Kirstenbosch Senior Horticulturist, 021 799 8757.

Information taken mainly from the SANBI website, http://www.sanbi.org.

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