Cycads – South Africa’s Green Treasure

With fossil evidence dating back to before the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, cycads are considered to be the oldest living seed plants on the planet. While at that time, referred to as the Jurassic period, cycads were widespread across the earth, today they are found in ever decreasing numbers in some tropical and sub-tropical areas. South Africa is home to 39 species of cycads and as such, is one of the world centers of cycad diversity. Unfortunately, many of these cycads are classed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN, with two species having become extinct in South Africa between 2003 and 2010.

While in other parts of the world habitat destruction is the main reason for the decline in cycad numbers, in South Africa theft is a greater threat than loss of habitat. Private collectors are reportedly willing to pay high prices for cycads, resulting in countless numbers of these precious plants being removed from the wild and sold. Currently there are seven cycad species believed to have fewer than 100 individual plants in the wild, with the very real possibility of these becoming extinct. Various strategies have been proposed to prevent this from happening, and SANBI has been working with the Department of Environmental Affairs and authorities in the Eastern Cape to protect the Albany cycad by incentivizing landowners to care for cycads on their properties.

With trade in cycads regulated by law, cycad owners must have a permit for each plant on their property. But this is hard to monitor and the high prices cycads fetch are an attractive incentive for breaking the law. In May 2010, thieves broke into the Durban Botanic Gardens at night, made their way past the security guard and selectively dug up twenty of the rarest cycads from the collection and left apprehended. Although cycads can be bought from reputable nurseries, the demand for rare specimens continues to drive the removal of these plants from the wild. Another problem facing cycad conservation is the fact that some tribes believe the bark has medicinal properties and cycads stripped of their bark are likely to die. This practice has seen some cycad species die out completely in the KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces.

Many of South Africa’s botanical gardens have cycad collections as a central attraction, including the Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Nelspruit; the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town; the Durban Botanical Gardens and in the Eastern Cape’s Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area. Visitors can stroll through these beautifully maintained gardens and view South Africa’s precious and protected cycads at leisure.