Thursday, July 5, 2007

Plant 'dinosaurs' dying out in South Africa

Plant 'dinosaurs' dying out in South Africa

Sally Archibald | Johannesburg, South Africa

15 September 2004 02:49

Two more cycad species have become extinct in the past two years, data from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) showed on Wednesday.

This means at least three, and possibly more, of these fascinating plant species have been lost to South Africa, said John Donaldson, director of research at the institute.

He said it is the avarice of only a few individuals that is causing the extinction.

"When there are only 10 to 20 individual plants left in the wild, just one or two selfish collectors can exterminate an entire species," he said.

"Sadly, these people have no qualms about personally causing an extinction, as it makes their private collections even more valuable."

Cycads are highly prized ornamental plants that take a very long time to grow from seed. A plant 3m or 4m tall could be 400 years old.

For this reason, people often resort to harvesting them from the wild, despite the strict laws against this.

Stan Rodgers of Limpopo Nature Conservation explained how an expedition in February to translocate the few last known individuals of the rare Encephalartos brevifoliolatus to safety from poachers ended in disaster.

They arrived to find the plants had been hacked out of the mountainside and taken away by helicopter.

This species, together with another species from Limpopo, E nubimontanus, is now extinct in the wild.

In the past year, cycad hauls worth almost a million rand have been confiscated -- on their way to being sold on the black market to local and foreign collectors.

Cycads are interesting not only for their beauty, but because they come from a very old lineage of plants, which existed before any of the angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved.

Cycads -- just like the species we see growing today in the forests of Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal -- were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, said Donaldson.

However, 24 of the 37 species in the country are now threatened, many with fewer than 500 individuals left in the wild, data from Sanbi's Threatened Species Programme shows.

The authorities have gone to great lengths to try to protect these species -- so far without much success, said Wendy Foden, coordinator of the programme.

She said microchips inserted in wild plants to identify them are easily dug out by poachers.

Researchers at Sanbi are now investigating ways to fingerprint genetically each individual plant, so that it will be impossible for anyone to claim falsely they bought a plant legally.

Unless the public wakes up and stops encouraging the illegal industry, the problem will not go away, said Foden.

Foden said the law does not prevent people from having cycads in their gardens. It is there to prevent unnecessary devastation of the natural resources of the country.

She said there are many cycad species that are not threatened and were easy to obtain from nurseries and cycad auctions.

"If you want a very large individual, go for the more common species, they are just as beautiful," she said.

Members of the public with cycads in their gardens should register them with the authorities, said Donaldson.

Once a cycad is registered, it can be legally traded.

The Threatened Species Programme was begun in 2003. It aims not only to monitor the status of plants and animals at risk from land transformation, overuse, alien plant invasion and climate change, but also to come up with practical solutions to protect the heritage of the country for future generations. -- Sapa

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