Safeguarding the Future of Ancient Cycads in South Africa

August 13, 2020

Encephalartos Middleburgensis in South Africa. Credit: Tatiana Hendrix / USFWS

Encephalartos Middleburgensis in South Africa. Credit: Tatiana Hendrix / USFWS

Have you ever seen an ancient plant that was around before, during, and after the dinosaurs roamed the earth? Cycads are one of the rarest and oldest plants on earth today, and they need our help. In fact, sources have described the rate of extinction of cycads as higher than rhinos and they are more endangered than corals and amphibians. Staff from the International Affairs program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently traveled to South Africa for a site visit to observe and learn more about cycads first hand, the impacts of poaching on wild populations, and to see the progress on a currently supported project to improve the conservation of cycad species.

A Historically Resilient Plant Group

Cycads are an ancient group of cone-producing plants made up of three families (Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae and Zamiaceae). They are the world’s oldest seed producing plants, have existed for over 300 million years, and are often referred to as “living fossils.” They even existed before the reign of dinosaurs and flowering plants! Cycads once made up 20% of the world’s plant life, and from the fossil record, we know they provided food and habitat for dinosaurs.

Present day cycads represent an ancient lineage approximately 12 million years old. There are approximately 356 recognized species of cycads, with many only described in the last two decades. They are restricted to tropical and subtropical regions of the world and more than 50% of all cycad species occur in just three countries: Australia, Mexico and South Africa.

Easily mistaken for palms by an untrained eye, cycads have stout, solid trunks and a crown of leaves. Unlike their palm doppelgängers, they do not produce flowers or fruits, and they fix their own nitrogen with the aid of cyanobacteria. Separate male and female plants close enough together are required for reproduction. Male cones generate heat that attracts insects like beetles which facilitate pollination of female plants. These long-lived plants are also slow growers and can take 10 to 20 years to produce cones necessary for population growth.

While they have stood the test of time and survived three mass extinctions, 88% of cycads are currently at risk of being wiped out forever. As resilient and diverse as they are, cycads are being driven to extinction by human actions, such as habitat destruction and unsustainable harvest for horticulture and landscaping. These threats make cycads the most imperiled plant group on Earth and the majority of species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. All cycad species are also included in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), an international treaty designed to regulate international trade in certain animal and plant species that are now, or potentially may become, threatened with extinction.

A cycad cone. Credit: Glenn Fleishman / Creative Commons

A cycad cone. Credit: Glenn Fleishman / Creative Commons

South African Species are Significantly Threatened

Africa is home to 65 species of Encephalartos cycads and South Africa is recognized as a global hot spot. Approximately 37 of the 65 species occur in South Africa and some of these species are teetering on the edge of extinction. For E. woodii, there is only one male plant left in cultivation, so there is no chance for sexual reproduction and the only new plants that have a chance of growing are basal offshoots (a clone of the plant). With no female plants in existence, this species is extinct in the wild. For E. heenanii, a recent aerial survey did not find any remaining plants of this species within South Africa’s borders.

Poaching of wild cycads for the horticultural trade is the biggest threat to their survival in South Africa, particularly the removal of large plants that may be hundreds of years old. Many long-lived, wild populations do not recover after mature plants are poached. The removal of plants has driven three species to extinction in the wild in South Africa. Removal of cycads from the wild has been banned since 2007 in South Africa, and the entire genus is included in CITES Appendix I. Despite these protections, enforcement has been hampered by resource and budgetary constraints, and the on-going illegal removal of wild cycads remains a countrywide problem.

“Because cycads are so unique, large, mature plants are in high demand. Poaching wild cycads impacts populations and can ultimately lead to the extinction of these rare endemic species,” says Patricia Ford, a botanist in the Division of Scientific Authority at USFWS.

Cycads are in demand in South Africa because they are perceived as aesthetically pleasing in gardens. For serious collectors (cycadophiles), the more rare the plant, the more desirable they are as a living "trophy" in their collection.

The cost of poaching cycads from the wild has a much higher cost than a number – such actions are detrimental to a cycad’s life and to its future survival. In addition, removal of cycads from the wild can often be brutal; dynamite is used to break up rocks where plants grow and uproot entire stems without keeping the roots and leaves. Similar to their slow growth, wild cycads often experience a slow death and ultimately do not survive when replanted. Even though there are cycads that can be purchased legally as nursery produced plants, many continue to be poached from the wild and therefore conservation actions are imperative in order to prevent their extinction.

USFWS International Affairs staff learn about a wild cycad from government authorities in South Africa. Credit: Ashleigh Dore, Endangered Wildlife Trust

USFWS International Affairs staff learn about a wild cycad from government authorities in South Africa. Credit: Ashleigh Dore, Endangered Wildlife Trust

Taking Action Before It is Too Late

Supported by the USFWS Combating Wildlife Trafficking Partnerships and Strategy (CWT) Branch, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) is leading a project to conserve South African Encephalartos cycad species, in close partnership with South African enforcement agencies and universities.

The goal of this project is to improve the conservation status of wild cycads in South Africa by supporting the criminal justice system and building capacity for more effective prosecution and enforcement of cycad-specific laws, including better traceability systems. This project has made considerable progress with increasing the profile of cycad conservation in South Africa, improving the capacity of frontline officials, reducing corruption and fraud, and establishing a robust cycad reference library.

EWT's main activities include the development of a DNA barcoding system to identify species. To build this system, they are working with a government-approved laboratory to process DNA samples and expand the reference database. Other components of the project include installing camera traps to detect any activity near known cycads, developing identification books for law enforcement officers, and working with landowners and other stakeholders to raise awareness to protect wild cycads in the their natural habitat.

Reflecting on the site visit with EWT, Tatiana Hendrix, a Program Officer in the CWT Branch, says, “There is really nothing else like them on the planet. They’re charismatic megaflora, the elephant of plants.” Seeing a wild cycad in-person for the first time Hendrix observed, “it is like stepping back in time and ‘experiencing’ geologic history.”

Can we save these awe-inspiring and ancient plants that inhabited the earth among the dinosaurs? Only time will tell, but with continued international partnerships and support, cycads may have a chance at surviving another 300 million years.

USFWS International Affairs staff view the a-80oc DNA freezer procured under EWT project. Credit: Ashleigh Dore, Endangered Wildlife Trust

USFWS International Affairs staff view the a-80oc DNA freezer procured under EWT project. Credit: Ashleigh Dore, Endangered Wildlife Trust

This story was written by Jenell M. Walsh-Thomas, an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow working with the Combating Wildlife Trafficking Branch of the International Affairs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.