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South Africa protects endangered cycads

Beautiful plants from the time of the dinosaurs now threatened by thieves.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The thieves knew exactly what they were looking for when they broke into the Durban Botanic Gardens on a Saturday night. They smashed open the lock on a gate, drove past where security guards should have been patrolling and headed straight for some of the rarest varieties of cycads in the world.

They roughly but selectively dug up 20 of the most highly endangered plants of a collection of 150, a haul worth $65,000, loaded them into their vehicle and rolled out.

It was a brazen theft but not at all uncommon in South Africa, where demand from collectors at home, in the United States and Asia is behind the widespread plundering of rare cycad varieties.

Cycads are the oldest seedling plants on earth, with fossil records dating them to before the time of the dinosaurs. During the Jurassic period they were spread across the earth, but today they are found only in diminishing numbers in certain tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

Now, in a high-tech bid to fight the cycad smugglers, scientists at the University of Johannesburg have launched a DNA barcoding project that aims to create a database of cycad species. The project could eventually help police and customs officials to identify specimens being stolen and trafficked across borders, with the hope of deterring crimes like the one in Durban late last year.

“They knew exactly which ones to go for,” said Philip Rousseau, a graduate student in botany at the University of Johannesburg who started the cycad barcoding project. “These are sophisticated people that know what they’re doing because these plants are worth so much.”

Collectors will pay up to $10,000 for a large specimen of a rare species. Some botanical gardens have put in place security to protect their cycads, but these tough measures aren’t foolproof because guards can be bought off. “Cycads are such popular plants, and there is such great demand, it’s insane what people will pay,” says Rousseau.

His project is focused on cycads from the Encephalartos genus, which are endemic to Africa. South Africa has an exceptionally high number of cycad species classified as endangered, despite having strict laws regulating the trade of the plant. To own a cycad in South Africa requires a permit, but this is difficult to monitor. Limited use of cycads is allowed for indigenous purposes such as “muti,” or traditional African medicine.

Global trade in the plant is restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), with all cycad species in South Africa falling under CITES Appendix I, which deals with species that are the most endangered. This means that trade in plant material collected from the wild is banned and trade of cultivated plants is strictly regulated.