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Conservation


Conservation 01Cycads are ancient plants, and although they are protected by laws, their conservation remains haphazard. Strict adherence to all conservation measures by all cycad enthusiasts is necessary if these plants are to survive. In some areas even the risk of prosecution and penalty through stringent protective legislation is insufficient to safeguard cycads from the predatory activities of poachers. Perhaps instead of linking these remarkable plants with the coelacanth or dinosaurs, it would be more effective from the conservation viewpoint to associate them with those species of rhinoceros which are also heading down the path to total obliteration as a result of humankind’s stupidity and greed.

Threatening Processes

1. Illegal Poaching

For reasons probably related to their promotion as ‘living fossils’, - an association which arises from their long history, coupled with their primitive appearance and the current popularity of dinosaurs – the cycads have become extremely desirable plants to collect. This desirability is compounded by the fact that most species, especially the larger growing types, are slow to develop and take many years to produce cones. This popularity has led to a considerable decline in the natural populations of many species and some have even become extinct in the wild.

The passion for possessing cycad plants is largely to be found in the developed countries, but the flow-on effects are felt wherever there are natural occurrences of these intriguing plants. Poaching has reached levels of great significance in Africa, Central America, Hispaniola, Mexico and parts of Asia, including China and Thailand, and there is now a thriving local, national and international trade in plants, legal and otherwise. The very high prices which some species fetch have encouraged collectors to gather these plants as an investment for the future and capitalise on their commercial appeal.

Some species of cycad may have been particularly common in nature. Certainly this applies to a few species of Dioon, Encephalartos and Zamia, which consisted of small populations either concentrated in discrete areas or occurring as widely separated individuals.

A particularly insidious factor is the concentration by poachers on females plants, thus altering the natural sex ration of the remaining wild populations and reducing even further their potential for regeneration.

2. Habitat Destruction

In all countries where cycads occur naturally habitat destruction caused by conversion of land to farms, forestry operations, dams, industrial developments, general urbanisation, drainage schemes and even roads and highways can pose significant threats to cycad populations, and may even be a real danger to the survival of localised populations or rare species. The indiscriminate and increasingly frequent use of fire to maintain cleared sites and promote green pick for livestock destroys seeds and seedlings and interrupts cone production. Fires also frequently spread into surrounding areas, causing extra, unintended damage.

Habitat destruction can have dramatic effects on species which have a very restricted distribution, particularly where they are confined to specific habitats. Much of the habitat of some rare Zamia species including Z. amblyphyllidia, Z. dressleri, Z. fischeri, Z. ipetiensis, Z. soconuscensis and the magnificent Z. wallisii has been alienated for various means.

Unfortunately many natural populations are destroyed before they have been adequately studied – the consequences may be far-reaching. Biodiversity is a real feature of wild populations, especially those which are well isolated from other populations and may have adapted to different soil types and habitats. Such disjunct populations are often of great significance to taxonomists and geneticists. If those that differ from other populations in some significant feature are lost to science, then some valuable genetic diversity may be gone forever.

3. Commercial Exploitation

In Florida a thriving industry based on processing the stems of Zamia integrifolia for starch built up over a period of 80 years, with one starch mill recorded as processing 10 – 15 tons of cycad stems each day. This commercial exploitation, together with recent urbanisation of much of its habitat, has reduced the original estimated population of 60 million plants by about 99 per cent.

Starch extraction in the region where Perth, Western Australia is now sited did not reduce the local species of Macrozamia to depleted levels, but it did eliminate the large specimens with trunks up to 8 m tall which colonial botanist Charles Fraser recorded on a voyage along the Swan River in 1827.

Commercialisation of limestone deposits continues to imperil cycads in various parts of the world. In Mexico much of the natural habitat of Zamia cremnophila has been destroyed by this process; in Thailand the entire habitat of Cycas tansachana is privately owned the scheduled to be quarried; and in China some populations of C. panzhihuaensis are threatened by iron ore mining.

Cycad starch is consumed at low levels by people in a range of cultures, but in times of food shortages and other hardships the intake may be greatly increased. During the food shortages resulting from the Cultural Revolution in China large quantities of Cycas guizhouensis were harvested as food and some populations of the species are now nearly extinct as a result.

The Consequences of Over Exploitation

A relatively common practice among modern botanists is to be deliberately vague when referring to the localities where new species of cycad occur. Depletion of populations is an unfortunate consequence following the naming (and consequent pinpointing) of many new species. At least one South African botanist has been reluctant to name a new cycad because its population is so small and vulnerable that he fears its immediate extinction following the obvious interest that would be created by its formal description.

This unfortunate situation is not restricted to species in easily accessible areas. Wealthy collectors are prepared to finance expeditions into remote regions and may even strip a species completely from its habitat in order to increase its monetary value on the private market.

In some cases even common cycads have been decimated. e.g. Zamia furfuracea, despite originally being widespread and locally common in many districts of Mexico, has been exterminated in a large number of its localities.

Exploitation of cycads is not confined to the Americas; a number of species from Asia and South Africa are also seriously endangered.

The Effects on the Pollinators

An insidious and largely hidden effect of the decimation of natural cycad populations is the reduction in numbers and possible extinction of the host-specific insects associated with them. Whether the cycads have suffered from illegal poaching, or from the misuse of pesticides or loss of habitat is immaterial, because the resultant loss of a specific pollinating vector means that the remaining cycad populations cannot increase naturally and are therefore unviable.

The Role of Legislation

The trade in cycads receives very little attention in all countries where they occur naturally with the notable exception of South Africa, where the traffic and trade in any cycad, either cultivated or wild, is strictly controlled. Even the movement of seed between provinces requires permits, and an import permit will only be supplied after an export permit has been issued by the province from which the seed originates. This restrictive legislation has been beneficial for African cycads in not only raising the general public’s awareness of the importance of these plants, but also in dissuading the activities of would-be poachers with substantial fines and well-publicised court cases. In the last decade appreciation of the plight of cycads has increased in several countries, particularly Mexico, where the trade in wild collected plants has been reduced dramatically.

Apart from locally enacted legislation for the protection of indigenous species, cycads are also protected by international law. The major international conservation organization, The Threatened Plant Unit of the International Union for Conservation and Natural Resources (IUCN), has compiled a list of those species of cycads which are regarded as being rare, endangered or vulnerable in nature.

Listing the status of a rare species is one major step in its protection; the second is restricting the international trade in that species. This procedure is undertaken by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) , which was enacted in 1973 and became effective in 1975. CITES is an international agreement between signatory countries that places restrictions on the import, export and re-export of listed species.

Five genera of cycads (Ceratozamia, Chigua, Enecephalartos, Microcycas and Stangeria), together with Cycas beddomei, are listed on Appendix 1 of CITES (the most restrictive list) and the remaining genera (Bowenia, Cycas, Dioon, Lepidozamia, Macrozamia and Zamia) are included on Appendix 2.

APPENDIX 1 plants cannot be traded between signatory countries without permits from the management authorities of both the importing and exporting countries. The import permit must be obtained before the export permit is requested from the country of origin. All part must agree that the trade in the specimens under question will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. Normally all parts and products of any species listed on Appendix 1 are afforded full protection, but in the case of cycads it was decided recently that trade in wild-collected seeds would be allowed as a further conservation measure to reduce pressure on natural populations. Seeds and plants propagated from cultivated specimens may be judged under different criteria to those from wild-collected plants. A proposal has been prepared to introduce a licensing system to allow registered nurseries to propagate and trade in Appendix 1 plants, with only those nurseries that comply with the CITES criteria being allowed to trade internationally in these plants. Licensing and monitoring of these nurseries would be controlled by the various CITES Scientific Authorities in each signatory country.

Commercial trade is permitted in wild-collected plants listed in Appendix 2 of CITES, providing the country of origin considers that the quantities traded do not represent a threat to the natural populations. More than 1 million Appendix 2 plants are traded annually, about half of which are artificially propagated, leaving a massive 500,000 cycad plants apparently being legally collected from the wild and traded internationally each year. When the pressure of this activity is combined with the annual trade in cycad seeds, now amounting to about six million seeds, it is only a matter of time before all Appendix 2 cycads become transferred to Appendix 1.

The enactment of CITES has successfully reined in and significantly controlled international commerce in cycads, but loopholes still exist and are exploited by determined, unscrupulous collectors and dealers who continue to falsify documents and deliberately misidentify rare plants to mislead officials. CITES still influences the export of endangered species from non-signatory countries, as a written permit from the country of export is still required before a consignment of rare or endangered plants will be granted entry into a signatory country.

Perplexingly, while the CITES agreement enables conservation it can also effect disaster : the mere listing of a species on Appendix 1 can trigger tremendous demand for plants, creating the high prices which inevitably lead to further illegal collecting.

(Extract from CYCADS OF THE WORLD by David L. Jones)


NATIONAL WILDLIFE MAGAZINECover 2003febmar

Feb/Mar 2003, vol. 41 no. 2

Modern Battle to Save Ancient Plants
By Don Boroughs

Cycads have been around since stegosaurs roamed the planet, but poachers are quickly driving these remarkable plants to extinction

The day dawned just as brightly in California for Australian Peter Heibloem, a cycad syndicate leader who once boasted of exporting plants Cycads1"straight out of the national park." Heibloem had accepted a free ticket from a customer to address a Southern California cycad society. And in Hollywood, South African Ernie Bouwer, who specialized in rare cycads selling for as muchas $35,000 apiece, was enjoying his first overseas trip, a gift from the same customer.

By 9 o'clock that morning, however, the fantasy vacations of all four cycad dealers had ended. Their friends and customers revealed their true identities: special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Operation Botany, the largest undercover investigation of plant smuggling ever, spanning two years, was complete. The net fell on a total of six traffickers from four continents that day.

The slaughter of elephants and rhinos by animal poachers easily ignites public ire, but plant poachers are quietly wreaking as much havoc, if not more, with their shovels. And no group of plants is being plundered more rapidly than cycads. Of the world's 298 cycad species, more than half are endangered, vulnerable or extinct. In Southern Africa, the epicenter of the cycad crisis, two-thirds of all species face extinction. "They are going to wipe these species out within years," warns Superintendent. Bernadine Benson, chief of the South African Police Service's Endangered Species Protection Unit DON L. BOROUGHS BOOM IN BUSTS: South African Police Captain Gert van der Merwe (above, left) removes cycad poaching suspects from a police truck. The officer, posing as a cycad buyer, allowed the suspects to load his unmarked truck with the trunks of rare Lydenburg cycads before revealing his cover. photo box -->

Law-enforcement agencies around the world are mobilizing to deal with this problem. Benson's unit arrests dozens of poachers each year.

 

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Photo: © DON L. BOROUGHS
BOOM IN BUSTS: South African Police Captain Gert van der Merwe (above, left) removes cycad poaching suspects from a police truck. The officer, posing as a cycad buyer, allowed the suspects to load his unmarked truck with the trunks of rare Lydenburg cycads before revealing his cover

And U.S. officials have recognized that the international cycad syndicates require a major offensive. "This is not a mom-and-pop business," says Ernest Mayer, the former head of FWS Special Operations. Conservationists fear that the counterattack may have started too late, however. After 250 million years on Earth, cycads are running out of time.

Long before the first flowering plants appeared, cycads—along with ferns and conifers—dominated the landscape of the ancient supercontinent of Pangea. Stegosaurs and iguanadons fed on their leathery leaves. Then as now, some had trunks that towered like telephone poles, while others resembled half-buried rugby balls. All were crowned with long, sturdy fronds, which often surrounded a clump of giant cones—the largest in the plant world. Though these tough plants survived the catastrophe that extinguished dinosaurs, competition from rapidly adapting flowering plants backed cycads into small corners of the world's tropical and subtropical regions. (Florida hosts the only surviving cycad in the United States, known as the coontie.) Growing and reproducing at a glacial pace, cycads have evolved little since they first flourished.

Their association with dinosaurs, along with their stout trunks and spiked leaves, give cycads a macho appeal that may help fuel the passions of the mostly male aficionados. But it is their rarity that drives collectors to fever. Douglas Goode, author of Cycads of Africa, laments that to discover and scientifically describe a new cycad species "is a death warrant" for the plant. He knows, because in 1983 he first described Encephalartos cerinus, a species of waxy cycad that grew in two gorges of eastern South Africa and numbered about 250. A year ago, Goode spent four days searching the gorges and found only holes in the rocky soil and "a few small ones in a cliff where only the vultures could reach them," he recalls. "Cycad collectors will stop at nothing."

In South Africa, the officers of the ESPU are about the only force standing between the appetite of wealthy collectors and cycad extinction. On a balmy May day along a dusty road in the Strydpoortberge Mountains, Captain Gert van der Merwe is working on the bottom of the poachers' pyramid: the poor rural Africans who rip the plants from the soil. Van der Merwe has heard from an informant that a villager is peddling rare Lydenburg cycads. So, posing as a collector, he enters the village. As word of his arrival spreads, several young men retrieve cycad bulbs, or caudexes, from the long grass and out from under bags of corn in their huts. Six poachers load the booty into an unmarked police pickup, while their leader brags that his men had to hang from ropes off a cliff-edge to remove these rarities. As soon as the men are trapped in the back of the vehicle, van der Merwe and his partner pull out their firearms and lock in the suspects and the incriminating evidence. The heap of 46 Lydenburg cycads in the pickup are perhaps a fifth of the world's remaining wild population of this species.

Most plundered South African cycads end up in suburban gardens in Pretoria and Johannesburg. As many as 2 million cycads decorate South African yards, perhaps twice as many as survive in the wild on the entire continent. But many wild cycads are also appearing in California and other Sun Belt states. "We are talking about millions of dollars of cycads being smuggled into the U.S. every year," says a covert investigator from Operation Botany. "It's organized crime."

Special Agent Kenneth McCloud has seen a lot in 25 years of work for FWS, but the bravado of cycad dealers took him by surprise. "They were pretty open and cavalier about their smuggling activities," says McCloud, "bragging about how they can fool officials." Their strategy was simple: Strip the leaves from a cycad caudex, and an endangered cycad becomes indistinguishable from a common one. Roots and leaves grow back once the caudex is replanted. Exporters sent shipments of mislabeled caudexes to McCloud's California "business," HU Enterprises, and then faxed him lists of the plants' true identities. In a July 2001 shipment of 114 cycads, for example, Bauer sent McCloud a Munch's cycad from Mozambique?only 17 specimens of which are known to survive. This one was labeled a Karoo cycad, which thrives in the thousands.

Rolf Bauer's main competitor in the South African cycad market, Ernest Bouwer, has his own take on the mislabeling of cycads. Walking among "the largest private collection of cycads in the world," as he calls his Johannesburg garden, Bouwer says that his only crime was "laziness." Bouwer pleaded guilty to shipping incorrectly identified plants, but says that he simply made changes to his shipments as scarcer cycads became available. "I could have had the permits changed," he protests. Indeed, the cycad dealer seemed to have had no trouble obtaining permits. In a taped telephone conversation with a covert investigator, Bouwer said that he slipped a government conservation official about a thousand dollars each time the bureaucrat supplied the necessary export paperwork

Cycad Plant
Photo: © DON L. BOROUGHS CHIPPING AWAY: To combat the rising tide of cycad poaching, South African authorities are inserting computer chip spikes into rare plants. The chips are programmed with data that, read by a scanner can help police prove a cycad was collected illegally in the wild. More ancient than flowering plants, the cone-bearing cycads (such as this Modjadji cycad) have changed little since they first appeared on the planet 250 million years ago.
Bouwer adds that he respected the spirit of the law because, he says, "all of the plants were out of my garden." There is no doubt that the South African propagates huge numbers of legal cycads. His backyard is so crammed with drums of seeds and pots of seedlings that it is sometimes hard to find a place to step. And it is often difficult to prove that a cycad was not innocently raised in a garden or taken from the wild before such collecting became illegal in the 1970s.

But not always. According to his indictment, Bouwer sent a covert investigator 34 Encephalartos hirsutus, an endangered cycad that was discovered in the 1980s. Bouwer's exporting partner, Heibloem, once told the investigator, "hirsutus is the only plant in South Africa that they can absolutely, positively, definitely say every single plant is illegally collected." (For as long as collectors have known of its existence, the taking of seeds or plants from the wild has been illegal.) The undercover agent who imported from Bouwer also says that plants sent by all of the smugglers were frequently marked with signs of the wild: porcupine teeth marks, gouges from hasty digging and fire scars.

When pressed, Bouwer says he's worried about endangered cycads, but he figures they are safer in his garden, behind a six-foot, electrified wall. But keeping a rare plant in an isolated garden is not conservation, notes John Donaldson, head of the Cycad Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union. Once separated from the environment where it interacts with soil bacteria and pollinating weevils, that cycad might never return safely to the wild. "In terms of evolution and ongoing natural processes, that plant is gone, it's finished, it's dead," he says. "It's a neat little garden statue."

Even in the wild, several cycad species are already doomed to extinction. The five remaining specimens of the escarpment cycad are all males. Four other species in Africa have dwindled to fewer than 50 plants, a point that Donaldson says leads to "total reproductive collapse." Most South African cycads depend on pollination by a weevil species specific to each cycad. The weevils in turn require a healthy cycad population with a steady supply of cones on which to feed. Already, the weevil pollinators of several rare cycads are missing, one extinction foreshadowing the next. Botanist Piet Vorster, president of the Cycad Society of South Africa, expects several cycad species to disappear from the wild in his lifetime, adding, "there's not a thing I can do about it."

Most South African conservationists are still determined to protect their rarest cycads. The last remaining population of Encephalartos hirsutus, near the Zimbabwe border, is patrolled daily by nature conservation officers of the Limpopo province. A novel line of defense for trophy plants is to implant microchips deep inside their caudexes. Each of these invisible tags has a number, identifying the plant's original position in the wild. With an electronic scanner, officials can prove that a cycad was definitely stolen from the wild. Already, this technology has led to convictions in South Africa.

Modest fines have been the rule for guilty poachers, however. "It's hard to gin up sympathy with prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies for plants compared to panda bears," notes Mayer. As if to prove him right, the defendants in Operation Botany recently walked away with minor fines in exchange for their guilty pleas: $25,000 for Heibloem, $5,000 for Bouwer and for California cycad dealer Donald Wiener, and $100 in court costs for Bauer and Van Vuuren. Other than the three months that some of the men spent in jails after arrest, not one of the offenders will serve time.

That may change, however. Both Australian and South African authorities may yet arrest their residents who were snared in Operation Botany. Bauer was previously sentenced to a five-year prison term, suspended on condition that he is not found dealing in illegal plants again. "Now we will get him," predicts van der Merwe, "and he will have to serve the suspended sentence."

Those trying to protect cycads thus far have made their stand largely out of the public eye, but they hope that even the quietest of actions will resonate. The last time McCloud saw Rolf Bauer was at the U.S. Marshall's Office in San Francisco. The friendly banter of meetings past, when McCloud posed as a cycad dealer named Marty Sterns, was gone. As McCloud approached Bauer with handcuffs, the agent saw a shudder of recognition in the eyes of the accused. But, says McCloud, "other than asking him to put his hands behind his back, we didn't speak."

Johannesburg-based writer and photographer Don Boroughs is working on a book about cycads and cycad fanatics.

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© 2006 National Wildlife Federation, All rights reserved. - Read more great stories online at www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife

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