The last, exceptionally large, surviving cycad specimen of the Mariepskop variety of Encephalartos laevofolius has been hacked apart in a fouled poaching attempt last week. This population is now almost extinct in the wild. Several more plants of the small cycad population were decimated, hacked or uprooted. It is believed a joint operation between the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, the local police and the Air Force Base in Hoedspruit interrupted the attempted robbery.
Acting on information received about a month ago about cycad thefts on the south-western side of the Mariepskop Mountains, Colin Patrick, manager at Mountain View near Hoedspruit contacted local nature conservation official, Bert Howard, who then launched an investigation. After a helicopter survey, conducted by the Hoedspruit Air Force Base's 19 Squadron, revealed less plants than expected, the investigating team did a ground search.
They found the centuries old example of this million year old species decimated and a number of other scenes where cycads had been removed. Evidence revealed where the group had overnighted and also where the group split up when they were apparently scared off by the helicopters earlier. The spoor led them down the mountain to where, what was originally thought, were 11 cycads that had been dragged down the mountain and left in the bush in Kampersrus, a village at the foot of the Mariepskop Mountain.
It turned out nine of these were up to 2m long stems hacked off the motherplant. The Air Force cargo slung the plants to their base on top of the mountain from where they were taken to a safe place. "I want to thank the Air Force for their invaluable support during the two days," says Howard.Though no arrests have been made yet, Howard expects a breakthrough in the investigations soon. Anyone with information is asked to contact Howard at 015 793 2471.
In the same week, 17 cycads of the same species, commonly known as the Kaapsche Hoop cycad, were stolen in the Kaapsche Hoop area, near Barberton. Howard does not rule out the likelihood of these cycads being earmarked for the foreign market. A cycad expert from Pretoria has been tasked to rescue what he can from the hacked and uprooted plants. "The ideal is to return them to nature, but this experience makes one wonder if this would be best option for their longterm survival," concluded Patrick.