Cycads

Dave Rushworth

As GYMNOSPERMS (the cone bearing plants), the Cycadophyta includes two Families - the Cycadaceae (the Cycas family) - and the Zamiaceae (the Cycad family). Cycas have only one genus (Cycas) with species ranging from Australia to Japan and China and around the Indian ocean with species found on the East African coast.

These are faster growing than Cycads and are often found as introduced garden specimens in South Africa. Cycads are divided into eight genera ranging from Australia to Mexico and southern Africa.

In South Africa there is only one genus - Encephalartos - which is divided into many species, most of which have very restricted distributions. I would like to quote here from greater authority, in ‘Coates Palgrave's - Trees of Southern Africa', where it records, (referring to Cycadophyta) - "

This is an ancient group of plants which flourished during the Mesozoic era, 250 to 65 million years ago ; in the Triassic period (250 to 203 million years ago) ; the Jurassic period (203 to 135 million years ago) ; and the Cretaceous period (135 to 65 million years ago).

The plants were especially diverse and abundant during the Jurassic period. Those which exist today represent only a remnant of this once dominant group, for the cycads are now a dying race. However, the fact that they have survived some 65 million years indicates how immensely resilient and successful they have been. As a group, the cycads are slowly dying out." If the dating is correct - and there are many fossil records as evidence to back up their historic past, then these plants belong to the group of plants from which our coal reserves and much of the world's oil reserves are formed.

In South Africa, all cycads are highly protected by law and wild, indigenous species may not be tampered with, collected or kept as a garden plants without a special permit. There are legal cycad growers in the country, from whom one can obtain legal specimens. Cycads, compared to Cycas', are very slow growing and the largest specimens in the wild are estimated to be several hundred years old.

Local Desecration

I must, at this point, express my utter disappointment and sorrow at the wilful destruction and theft of the last, massive, surviving cycad specimen on Mariepskop this last week. It is shocking news, an irreplaceable loss and a sad reflection of the greed displayed by some people of this area.

This is a unique mountain area which has been mentioned for special ‘heritage' status. The investigations are still ‘sub judice' but this type of attitude does not bode well for the future of local nature conservation.

This type of disregard is prevalent in the destruction of so many other protected species in this area. One only has to look around ‘town' to see trailers loaded with logs of protected species, for building purposes, amongst other items. In an area reputed to be so keen on ‘conservation', where are we going wrong ?

Much of the problem lies with intentional greed, personal status and the aim to make a quick ‘buck'. - The eternal attraction and ‘love of money' ! Where is our ‘Vision' ? In most cases the fault lies not so much with the poor person carrying out the contravention as it does with the affluent market offering large sums of money for the protected item. It is the wealthy, informed people who could do much to stop the wilful carnage and continual destruction of our natural assets.

Education - Changing Attitudes

I am in no position to point a finger, for I have - as I am sure we all have - been guilty of wilful destruction of some part of nature, be it shooting birds or collecting eggs. Sir Peter Scott told me how many ducks and geese he shot before he eventually became one of the worlds leading conservationists.

Selous, the early explorer shot many rhino and left the carcasses lying where they fell. Most people have a history of misguided conduct before they became informed.

Early conservation policies have been mentioned previously and the examples are numerous. It doesn't help to apportion blame. We need to be educating the young and uninformed people while, at the same time, settling examples to those of our own communities to help form honest attitudes and conservation ethics. We will all make mistakes and we can only try our best - but there is a need for bold people to speak out and expose the destruction of our natural heritage.

Are we destined to try and attract visitors to this part of the world to see Africa's historic achievements in crumbling, rock ruins and denuded landscapes ? - Or will we be committed to maintaining the intricate diversity that will ensure an aesthetic and productive environment for all ? It is up to all of us and to succeed we need to be free of selfish attitudes.

To Manage or to Protect?

There is an assumption that the natural world has developed to its present stage through various climatic changes. There have been periods of flooding, ice caps, desert and forest. The earliest perceptions of humanity are what we consider ‘pristine' and our own personal experiences are even more intimate.

The dynamic systems on earth are constantly changing and this is a process we need to accept. Many of the present species are ‘assets', useful to humanity, that rely on our careful management for continued existence.

Others, which may appear useless to us, are designed, in delicate interaction, to maintain healthy systems for the life on earth. These other species, because of our destructive tendencies, require special protection.

Every species is linked to all others in some way and the greater the diversity the more stable the systems in which they operate. It is this diversity which produces comfortable and aesthetic living conditions for ourselves and all other species.

If we destroy a species others are affected and certain systems eventually cease to work. Relative to our concept of time, certain species have a short life span and reproduce fast, while others live for longer and reproduce slowly. To those species with fast reproduction, that we use, we can apply management principles. If we don't they will die out. We tend to call this ‘conservation' or ‘ sustainable use' of the ‘resource'. our best.

Where we try and apply this same concept to slow producing species, it makes a mockery of our stated intention and we end up ‘mining' or killing off the resource. An example is the use of hardwood forests, which can not produce fast enough for our economic requirements.

The ‘leadwood' trees, to which I referred earlier, and the cycads, fall into this category. They and numerous other species can never keep up with our economic greed and need to be Protected, without any monetary tag, to function as part of their natural systems.

Without meaningful protection we are speedily causing their extinction and that of other reliant species. It is ‘snowballing' to the detriment of comfortable and sustainable human existence. They are our very foundations of life. With many of our ‘manageable species' our greed is destructive, as in a previously used example, where we hunt the best ‘trophy' animals while they are still of an age to breed.

Only the most idiotic farmer would do such a thing with his domestic herd. With a bit more thought and a lot less greed we can successfully manage the fast producing species and protect the long lived and slow producing species for the future of a quality environment. Let us try our best.



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