Cycads stolen out of national park

Cycads worth hundreds of thousands of Rands have been stolen out of the Blyde Canyon National Park. The latest raid in the Leboeng area on the Drakensberg escarpment netted 105 cycads, estimated to be worth almost a quarter of a million Rand. Nature conservation officials say that the theft has been ongoing in the park for more than two years. 11 suspects have been arrested. Their cases have been postponed until the end of July, when they will be heard in the Graskop court.

In the last year the Mpumalanga Parks Board has confiscated 549 cycads in six raids. However, theft out of the Blyde Canyon National Park causes logistical difficulties as the park falls under Mpumalanga's jurisdiction, but many of the thieves live in Limpopo. The park boundary lies on the provincial boundary. Joint raids involving both nature conservation departments then need to be arranged. The latest joint raid found most of the cycads to be of one species, Encephelartos cupidus, a dwarf species that only grows as large as a football.

The species was once valuable due to its rarity, but there are now many plants on the market, which are likely to have illegal origins. Cycad theft has made many species extinct in the wild, as thieves target entire populations of species at a time. The stolen plants regularly make their way to Gauteng, as well as to buyers around the country. Head of the special investigation unit for Mpumalanga Parks, Jan de Beer, has said, "Cycads are a national heritage. Everywhere that cycads are in their natural habitat they are threatened with extinction.

A couple of species have been eradicated in nature, and some are on the brink of extinction, both in nature reserves and on private land. Any collector that buys hot plants must realise that they are part of the destruction and are just as guilty as the people taking the plants out of the veld." He urged cycad buyers to ensure that they get a permit when they buy a cycad, and never to buy a plant that had been stripped of its leaves and roots.

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