While rhino poaching is increasing at an alarming rate, four species of cycads found only in South Africa are on the brink of extinction due to poaching.
Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Kirsty Brebner said South Africans like to point fingers at the Chinese and Vietnamese, who use rhino horn as medicine but local citizens are buying rare, poached cycads.
Cycads are the most threatened organism on the planet and the crisis is “happening before our eyes”, says the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s Michele Pfab.
“Imagine telling people there were only four rhino left in the wild. Well, there is a species of cycad like that,” she said.
Pfab said rural poor people do the “dirty work” for collectors and breeders in Gauteng, who make up a bigger market for stolen cycads.
Pfab said three species of the 38 cycads found only in South Africa have gone extinct in the past two decades and 12 species are critically endangered.
Fully grown rare cycads can sell for up to R500000. One can legally buy cycad seedlings, which range from R100 to R3000 a centimetre. After 10 years of growth, a 1m plant could be worth from R10000 to R300000.
“It is a good investment,” said legal cycad seller and owner of Cycad World of Innovations, Adolph Fanfoni.
Cycads take 15 years to become reproductive and dealers and breeders don’t want to buy a seedling legally and wait years for it to grow. “There are not enough big plants to go round for everybody, so they are worth a lot of money,” said Pfab.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Rynette Coetzee said that there was a more than 60% shortage of officers that enforce environmental law and compliance in Limpopo. “There is a type of cycad in Limpopo that is poached almost every weekend and will be extinct by 2013 if current poaching levels continue,” said Pfab.
“There are severe staff shortages in conservation departments in all provinces,” said Coetzee.
Law enforcement and compliance officers track and arrest all poachers, whether they poach rhino, cycads, lizards, succulent plants, Cape parrots or elephant. As officers are kept busy trying to stop rhino poaching, the poaching of many other animals and plants are taking place under their eyes, said Pfab.
Fanfoni said there were at least 200000 cycads in Gauteng gardens, but that many owners don’t have permits as required by law.
He said government does not have the staff to monitor the 27 “localities where cycads are left in the wild” and if people with cycads in their gardens have permits.