Conservation bodies from the private and public sector in South Africa are working together on a strategy to protect the 38 cycads species that occur in South Africa. This strategy includes a national public participation process that will involve landowners, private collectors and communities to conserve critically endangered species.

South Africa is home to 38 cycad species, of which 29 are endemic to the country. This makes South Africa one of the global hot spots for threatened cycads. Cycads are the oldest living seed plants in the world and survived three mass extinction events in earth’s history. There are 308 cycad species on the planet. Three species that are unique to South Africa have been reported as extinct in the wild between 2003 and 2010.

On 9 June, the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA) took the lead in facilitating a round table discussion among private cycad growers, government and conservation associations towards developing and implementing a strategy to protect our cycads. Representatives agreed to create a forum to maintain open discussions with government and to involve the private sector in the development of a national cycad Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) and National Conservation Strategy (NCS).

Stakeholders attending the round table discussion included the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Scientific Authority, the Cycad Society of South Africa, the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Limpopo Economic Development and Tourism Department, the Strategic Environment Focus, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the South African Nursery Association.

Lizanne Nel, conservation manager at SAHGCA, said the workshop succeeded in establishing a common understanding of the threats to cycads in the wild and determining the role that the different stakeholders can play in the process. “We are convinced that productive partnerships between government and the private sector can have a positive impact on the conservation of South Africa’s cycad species for future generations,” Nel said.

The Wolkberg cycad (Encephalartos dolomiticus) is critically endangered, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is a rare species localized in the south-eastern region of Limpopo province. Less than 140 plants are left in the wild and numbers continue to decline as a result of illegal harvesting for horticultural and medicinal purposes. It is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits the export of wild-sourced specimens for commercial purposes.

Threats to Cycads

There are numerous reasons for the decline of cycads in the wild, but the biggest threat remains the removal of these plants for private collections. Other reasons are habitat loss; illegal collection and harvesting of plants and seeds from the wild for trade and horticulture purposes; biological invasion and harvesting for traditional use.

The proposed National Management Strategy and Action Plan will include measures to protect cycads from these threats. These may include:

  • marking or micro-chipping plants
  • increasing security to prevent illegal collection by filling vacant ranger posts
  • improving compliance and enforcements by training enforcement officers
  • securing and protecting critical habitat for wild cycads
  • re-establishing a national gene bank for cycad to provide representative gene pools for conservation and restoration
  • monitoring population status and effectiveness of interventions
  • establishing working partnerships to integrate activities from different stakeholders
  • developing economic incentives for land owners/communities to protect wild populations
  • implementing public awareness campaigns on the cycad crisis and its value to society
  • participation by cycad owners to propagate plants to be re-introduced in their natural habitat.

Nel said the public can contribute to this strategy as it has now been made available to the public for comment. The public is also urged not to buy large cycads from informal dealers because these plants are likely to have been removed illegally. ‘It only stimulates the illegal harvesting and trade in endangered species and weaken conservation efforts.”