While rhino poaching is increasing at an alarming rate, four species of cycads found only in South Africa are on the brink of extinction due to poaching.
Endangered Wildlife Trust's Kirsty Brebner said South Africans like to point fingers at the Chinese and Vietnamese, who use rhino horn as medicine but local citizens are buying rare, poached cycads.
Cycads are the most threatened organism on the planet and the crisis is "happening before our eyes", says the South African National Biodiversity Institute's Michele Pfab. "Imagine telling people there were only four rhino left in the wild. Well, there is a species of cycad like that," she said. Pfab said rural poor people do the "dirty work" for collectors and breeders in Gauteng, who make up a bigger market for stolen cycads.
Pfab said three species of the 38 cycads found only in South Africa have gone extinct in the past two decades and 12 species are critically endangered.
Fully grown rare cycads can sell for up to R500,000. One can legally buy cycad seedlings, which range from R100 to R3,000 a centimetre. After 10 years of growth, a 1m plant could be worth from R10,000 to R300,000.
"It is a good investment," said legal cycad seller and owner of Cycad World of Innovations, Adolph Fanfoni.
Cycads take 15 years to become reproductive and dealers and breeders don't want to buy a seedling legally and wait years for it to grow. "There are not enough big plants to go round for everybody, so they are worth a lot of money," said Pfab.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust's Rynette Coetzee said that there was a more than 60% shortage of officers that enforce environmental law and compliance in Limpopo. "There is a type of cycad in Limpopo that is poached almost every weekend and will be extinct by 2013 if current poaching levels continue," said Pfab.
"There are severe staff shortages in conservation departments in all provinces," said Coetzee. Law enforcement and compliance officers track and arrest all poachers, whether they poach rhino, cycads, lizards, succulent plants, Cape parrots or elephant. As officers are kept busy trying to stop rhino poaching, the poaching of many other animals and plants are taking place under their eyes, said Pfab.
Fanfoni said there were at least 200000 cycads in Gauteng gardens, but that many owners don't have permits as required by law. He said government does not have the staff to monitor the 27 "localities where cycads are left in the wild" and check if people with cycads in their gardens have permits.
Cycads are seed plants typically characterized by a stout and woody (ligneous) trunk with a crown of large, hard and stiff, evergreen leaves. They usually have pinnate leaves. The individual plants are either all male or all female (dioecious). Cycads vary in size from having a trunk that is only a few centimeters tall to trunks up to several meters tall. They typically grow very slowly and live for a very long time. Some specimens are known to be as much as 1,000 years old.
Cycads are found across much of the subtropical and tropical parts of the world. They are found in South and Central America (where the greatest diversity occurs), Mexico, the Antilles, southeastern United States, Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and southern and tropical Africa, where at least 65 species occur. Some can survive in harsh semidesert climates, others in wet rain forest conditions and some in both. Some can grow in sand or even on rock, some in oxygen-poor swampy bog-like soils rich in organic material, and some in both. Some are able to grow in full sun, some in full shade, and some in both. Some are salt tolerant.
Cycads belong to the biological division Cycadophyta. There are three extant families of cycads, Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae, and Zamiaceae. Though they are a minor component of the plant kingdom today, during the Jurassic period they were extremely common. They have changed little since the Jurassic, compared to some major evolutionary changes in other plant divisions.
Cycads are gymnosperms (naked seeded), meaning that their unfertilized seeds (ovules) are open to the air to be directly fertilized by pollination, as contrasted with angiosperms, which have enclosed seeds with more complex fertilization arrangements. Cycads have very specialized pollinators, usually a specific kind of beetle.
The cycad fossil record dates to the early Permian, 280 mya (million years ago). One of the first colonizers of terrestrial habitats.
Encephalartos woodii is extinct in the wild, and all living specimens are clones of the type. In recent years, many cycads have been dwindling in numbers and may face risk of extinction because of theft and unscrupulous collection from their natural habitats, as well as from habitat destruction. About 23% of the 305 extant cycad species are either critically endangered or endangered, and 15% are vulnerable.
Cycads and the insects that are essential to their reproduction have become locked into a symbiosis where they are entirely dependant on each other.
Without the insects the cycads cannot reproduce and without the cycads the insects cannot reproduce. Both have evolved strategies to ensure the partnership works. For instance male cones of the cycad heat up during the day, attracting the insects that become covered with pollen and as they move about transfer it to the female cones.
Insects lay their eggs in the seeds of the female cones so that only 1 in 200 or 300 may be viable and, taken together with the coning frequency which can be as infrequent as once in 35 years for some species, the recruitment rate can be extremely slow. This is why illegal harvesting of adult plants can lead to extinction in the wild.
The insects like Thrips feed on the pollen in male cycad cones. When they visit female cones the pollen on their bodies is rubbed off and facilitates pollination.
I participate because I care - CUSTOS NATURAE
Convenor of the AIKONA Group.
No to Hotels in and commercialization of our National Parks.
Done 142 visits to National Parks.
What a wonderful privilege.