Some call them living fossils; others describe them as the most exotically beautiful plants the world has ever seen. Cycads are the link between prehistoric ferns and the flowering plants we are surrounded by today.
They can be found on almost every continent and have been around for millions of years, remaining unchanged. Cycads are one of nature's true survivors, enduring ice ages and prehistoric extinction events. Yet today they on the verge of extinction and like many species they have been pushed there by the actions of man.
Unlike in the rest of the world where habitat destruction is the primary threat to cycads, in South Africa it is illegal to remove cycads from the wild for private collections. Slow growth rates and their reliance on specific pollinators, make cycads highly vulnerable to any form of over-exploitation.
The Middelburg cycad, E.middelburgensis, is a perfect example of this, becoming so rare that the weevil pollinator they rely upon became extinct, meaning for the Albany species to survive it now needs to be artificially pollinated.
Around the globe cycads differ dramatically in their size and their popularity. Some dominate forest canopies, while others grow no larger than a football. Yet one characteristic remains constant - the rarest are also the most commercially sought after.
Globally there are 297 species of cycad, 58 percent of which are threatened and while South Africa used to be home to 38 species, three are now extinct in the wild, 12 are critically endangered and 13 are threatened. In fact the threat to cycads is four times that of the average plant and is globally the only threatened genus.
The demand for cycads has changed over the centuries. The Latin name Encephalartos means "bread in the head" and comes from the ancient tradition of removing the pith from the cycad stem in time of famine. This pith is highly toxic and needs to be buried in the ground for two months before it can be kneaded into bread.
Cycads swiftly moved from a delicacy to a prized horticultural centerpiece, with cycads being collected from all over the world to take the pride of place in botanical gardens across the globe. In fact the world's oldest pot plant E.altensteinii is a cycad; collected in the glory days of horticultural adventurers by Kew Gardens earliest plant collected Francis Masson in 1770.
Back then it was planted at ground level, today at 4m 23cm it towers over visitors, growing at roughly 2.5cm a year only coned once, back in 1819. It wasn't long before private collectors jumped on the band wagon, keen to own one of these ancient floral marvels for themselves.
But rather than preserving a species, collections have resulted in their total devastation with cycads disappearing at an alarming rate. Thus it is unsurprising that the world's rarest plant, Encephalartos woodii, is a cycad. Only one has ever been found in the wild, deep in the forests of Zululand in 1895 and that plant has sadly disappeared since its discovery.
Fortunately (cuttings) three of the four stems were removed and planted in the Durban botanical garden. Suckers were collected from these stems over the years, and these are now the material grown in botanical gardens and private collections all over the world.
Being dioecious plants, the male and female are separate, a lone cycad has no possible chance of reproducing, as no female have been found it means like Lonesome George the sole remaining Abingdon Island Galapagos tortoise this last remain E.woodii heralds the end of a species.
This might soon become the fate of other cycad species, with poachers tending to target female plants as they are more valuable as coning females can produce up to 200 seeds from which new cycads can be grown.
Targeting females has left many populations terribly one sided. It makes it practically impossible for populations to function normally, as individuals become too far apart for pollination to be viable and natural reproductive processes ceased to exist.
Even when reproduction does happen, the prospects aren't good. Young seedling also get the unwanted attention of poachers, who will walk around in the area and digging up anything that they can carry back to sell.
Many species of cycads are now listed in the IUCNs red data book and protected under CITES regulations controlling their international trade. This combined with new regulations like the Threatened or Protected Species (ToPS) in South Africa, should ensure a protected future for Africa's remaining wild cycad populations.
Unfortunately that's not the case and it is not just wild cycads that are being plundered. Thieves have targeted Nelspruit Botanical Gardens several times over the past four years, resulting in the approximate loss of R3 million worth of cycads.
In April 2007 and August 2009, 20 cycads were stolen that were part of the Botanical Gardens ex situ conservation plan. They were worth over R100,000 and some of them were around 50 years old. The conservation plan had hoped to address the problems with poaching by propagated cycads, to be used in reintroduction programs and to be sold to collectors.
By legally providing collectors with cycads they had hoped to bypass the poachers. Sadly, it seems that before the Botanical Gardens can start addressing poaching in the wild they are going to have to deal with the problem in their own gardens.
Nature reserves are also a prime target for poachers, who only get a fraction of the cycads true value. The Lily Cycad Reserve, in the Selati Nature Reserve, Limpopo was plundered in 2008 and 103 rare cycad were taken, worth approximately R10 million.
Yet it is estimated that the men doing the dirty work on the ground will only get a few thousand for their trouble. The real winners, as with many forms of poaching, are the men higher up the chain who deal directly with the buyers and let others do their dirty work.
One of the saddest stories of cycad theft is the fate of the Mariepskop mountain cycads, which had resided on those slopes for thousands of years.
While the population was never really big, it consisted of a couple of massive individuals with stems six meters in length. One-night poachers arrived on the mountain and dug up several plants, dragging and rolling them down the mountain slope. Cycads have extensive root systems, which are easily damaged and make them difficult to lift; it also means that the mortality rate of transported cycads is really high.
Dragging the Mariepskop cycads down the mountain slope would have damaged the plants so much that they probably would not have survived, but the drag marks left the police a nice trail to follow. This conveniently led to a collector's property, but unfortunately the plants were no longer there and the collector denied any knowledge of them so no case could be made.
Fortunately that's not always the case. A bust in Boksburg successfully uncovered 210 cycads valued at over half a million rand, for which the owner of the property didn't have the appropriate paperwork. Four of the plants were micro-chipped. Microchips enable individual cycads to be identified through a national register and their movements traced.
The technology can be used to tell wild cycads apart from cultivated one, allowing stolen cycads to be identified amidst those that have been legally obtained. In the case of the Boksburg bust, the four micro-chipped cycads were scanned and identified as stolen sealing the fate for at least one illegal trader.
One of the things that make it difficult for those trying to end the illegal trade in cycads is the ease at which poachers can disguise one cycad for another. Stripped of their leaves cycads are almost impossible to identify. In a case a couple of years ago Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency stopped a truck travelling in the middle of the night with "fire wood', it was only upon closer inspection that they realized E.heenanii plants stripped of their leaves was being conceal amongst the wood. While micro-chipping is helping in some cases, the removal of micro-chips by poachers is an unfortunate reality.
New technologies have to be constantly brought to the forefront in the battle against the cycad poaching. DNA paint is one of these new techniques that are making a considerable difference, especially in overcoming the removal of microchips.
This uniquely coded invisible paint is sprayed onto the plant and as each batch of the paint has an individual code it be used to identify it.
The hope is, that micro-chipping and DNA paint could curb the illegal trade in cycads, but with prices ranging from R400 to R1000 a centometer and demand for rare cycads in the far East and America as high as ever, cycad poaching will remain an attractive prospect to a greedy few. This was illustrated recently when a new species of cycad was found and then almost obliterated by poachers within weeks of its discovery.