South Africa protects endangered cycads

Beautiful plants from the time of the dinosaurs now threatened by thieves.

By Erin Conway-Smith — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 9, 2010 07:06 ET

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The thieves knew exactly what they were looking for when they broke into the Durban Botanic Gardens on a Saturday night. They smashed open the lock on a gate, drove past where security guards should have been patrolling and headed straight for some of the rarest varieties of cycads in the world.

They roughly but selectively dug up 20 of the most highly endangered plants of a collection of 150, a haul worth $65,000, loaded them into their vehicle and rolled out.

It was a brazen theft but not at all uncommon in South Africa, where demand from collectors at home, in the United States and Asia is behind the widespread plundering of rare cycad varieties.

Cycads are the oldest seedling plants on earth, with fossil records dating them to before the time of the dinosaurs. During the Jurassic period they were spread across the earth, but today they are found only in diminishing numbers in certain tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

Now, in a high-tech bid to fight the cycad smugglers, scientists at the University of Johannesburg have launched a DNA barcoding project that aims to create a database of cycad species. The project could eventually help police and customs officials to identify specimens being stolen and trafficked across borders, with the hope of deterring crimes like the one in Durban late last year.