Some of the magnificent cycad plant that was desecrated by plant thieves last July is beginning to make a recovery, and the first green shoots have begun to emerge from one of its stems. Prior to it being brutally hacked to pieces, the exceptional multi-stemmed cycad was probably the last remaining specimen of Encephalartos laevifolius of the Mariepskop variety to survive in the wild. All of the five varieties of this cycad species are now practically extinct in the wild, as unscrupulous plant thieves have plundered all their natural habitats.
The cycad was growing on the Mariepskop peak of the Drakensberg escarpment. After receiving a tip-off that cycad thieves were operating in the area, the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism launched an investigation.
A helicopter survey carried out together with Air Force Base Hoedspruit’s 19 Squadron revealed that a team of plant thieves had been stripping the mountain of cycads, and had began to hack up the huge centuries-old cycad. The stems were recovered and taken for some intensive care in a safe location.
The road to recovery for the cycad has been a long one, but as horticulturalist Andre Topham says, “There is no haste with prehistoric plants.” Topham was involved in the rescue attempt of the plant from the time the eco-crime was discovered. “The stems arrived in a terrible state.”
Over several days he and a team of workers worked on the hacked stems, some of which were over two metres long and extremely heavy, until a clean area of growing tissue was revealed. Working from photographs, the stems were replanted in a protected area at Moholoholo Ya Mati, down the mountain from the where they were originally growing.
All efforts were made to reconstruct their positions as on the original mountain site. Unfortunately, two of the long stems rescued when the plant poaching attempt was halted by authorities have not recovered. These stems were rolled down the Mariepskop escarpment. Topham believes that this caused structural damage within the plant, causing them to eventually rot.
Topham says that now that the first signs of green have emerged from one of the stems, more palm-like fronds should unfurl from the ancient plant within a month until it has a full set of leaves. Although not all the surviving stems are showing such promising signs of life, Topham is content to wait - after all, when a species has survived from the time of the dinosaurs, a year is a mere nothing in their life span.