Getting excited about cycads

Cycad expert, Dr John Donaldson, says most cycad trade takes place in South Africa.

Cycads are a lot more interesting than most give them credit for, and the Botanical Society of South Africa is hoping to make us all a little less ignorant about these endangered plants with its “Learning about Cycads” resource, which was launched to coincide with World Plant Day.

The resource, which includes a book, a poster and some large cards, will help schools build knowledge about threatened plant species into the curriculum.

Proving that it’s never too late to learn, Education MEC Debbie Schäfer, the guest speaker at the launch, said she knew very little about cycads before her talk.

“I was fascinated to learn that there are about 22 000 different species of plants in South Africa and that this makes up nearly 10% of all the plant species on earth. And I also discovered that cycads are 340 million years old and have outlived the dinosaurs and survived mass extinction in three global catastrophes,” she said.

Ms Schäfer said South Africa had also been recognised as one of the global hot spots for cycad diversity and that these ancient plants had fallen prey to frightening levels of poaching.

Of South Africa’s 38 cycad species, three are extinct in the wild, 12 are critically endangered, four are endangered, nine are vulnerable and seven are near threatened.

“The biggest threat facing cycads is poaching plants from the wild to supply domestic and international trade. Often the poached cycads are damaged beyond repair and die, resulting in more cycads being poached to satisfy demand,” said Ms Schäfer.

The launch was held at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, a place where its cycad flagship species, Encephalartos latifrons, or the Albany cycad, was first introduced in 1913 by the first director Professor Harold Pearson.

In August 2013 brazen thieves made off with 24 cycads from Kirstenbosch, including 22 critically endangered Albany cycads.

These are found only in the Bathurst area of the Eastern Cape and there are probably only about 80 still growing in the wild where they no longer reproduce naturally because they are so far apart from each other and have to be hand-pollinated.

In addition, two Eastern Cape dwarf cycads (Encephalartos caffer) were also stolen. These critically endangered cycads had a conservative commercial value of at least R200 000.

Ms Schäfer said she looked on the internet to try to find out why cycads were in such demand that people wanted to poach them. “But I cannot find a reason why – so if any of you experts can tell me I would be very interested,” she said.

Conservation biologist and cycad expert, Dr John Donaldson, said most cycad trade happened in South Africa and there were plans to get genetic fingerprints of each individual plant to help in its protection.

However, he said, education would help to change the attitudes of the next generation and we all had a role to play in that.

Executive director, of the primary schools programme Dr Zorina Dharsey, said the resource had had to find a way to help children relate to cycads.

“It’s not a pretty plant, has sharp prickly leaves and doesn’t smell. We had to tell its story, do activities connected to this plant that children do not see often,” said Dr Dharsey.

Botanical Society of South Africa executive director Zaitoon Rabaney, said the resource had been designed for pupils to increase their awareness of how to interact with the environment and to understand our cultural and natural heritage.

Ms Schäfer said the resource would encourage environmental education in schools. “It will promote awareness about indigenous plants and specifically focus on cycads, and emphasise certain environmental education concepts, which are generally found in the Life and Living and Biology topics to complement the curriculum.

“Throughtheuseofthis resource, learners can engage in interactive learning partaking in hands-on-activities that can spark their imagination and unlock their creativity,” she said.

Wynberg Girls’ High School pupil, Eryn van Rooyen, narrates the video used in the resource.

“I got involved in the project as the Botanical Society asked me to narrate as the e-book was for the youth,” she said.

“They thought it would be a good idea for the message of cycad conservation to be carried forward by the youth. It was recorded in a studio in town in the week prior to the book launch. From when I was very young, I had a great interest in dinosaurs and palaeontology, so when I learnt that cycads were around from the dinosaurs’ time, I felt they deserved to be protected. After all, they outlived the dinosaurs and I give them great respect for that.”