Please note that you are viewing the old Science in Africa website. Please see for our new site!

Science in AfricaLogo
November 2010




 SA Cycads face extinction crisis


Lebombo Cycad

After surviving three mass extinction events in the earth’s history, cycads, the oldest living seed plants are facing a growing threat of extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released the latest global conservation assessment for cycads today, which shows that cycads are the most threatened group of organisms to have been assessed so far. Cycads are the oldest living seed plants and have survived three mass extinction events in the earth’s history but they are facing a growing threat of extinction. The global conservation assessment of 308 cycad species shows that their status has declined from 53% threatened in 2003 to 62% threatened in 2010.

South Africa is one of the world centres of cycad diversity, with 39 species. It is also one of the global hotspots for threatened cycads: 68% of South Africa’s cycads are threatened with extinction compared to the global average of 62%; 31% from South Africa are classified as Critically Endangered, compared to the global average of 17%; South Africa also has three of the four species classified as Extinct in the Wild, two of which have become Extinct in the wild in the period between 2003 and 2010.
The main threat in South Africa is removal from the wild for private collections and this is certainly the pressure that resulted in two species becoming Extinct in the Wild. Habitat loss, which is the main cause of decline in other parts of the world, is a lesser problem for South African cycads. More recently, bark harvesting for the medicinal trade has increased in South Africa and has also resulted in declines in cycad populations, even resulting in the complete loss of populations in KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape.

South Africa currently has seven cycad species that have fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild. Professor John Donaldson of the South African National Biodiversity Institute warns that South Africa risks losing these cycad species within the next 10 years unless effective measures are put in place to stop the flow of cycads from wild populations to private gardens. “We have seen dramatic declines in some species over ten years, one of them from ca. 700 plants to fewer than 100, and this is going to result in extinctions,” he said.

The National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA), which came into force in 2004, makes provision for species management plans as one tool to manage species like cycads. SANBI has worked together with the Department of Environmental Affairs and stakeholders in the Eastern Cape to develop a management plan for the Albany cycad, one of the species with fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild. This is the first species management plan developed so far and provides incentives to landowners if they manage their cycads effectively.

The Scientific Authority established by the Minister of Environmental Affairs in 2008 to advise government on the sustainable use of wildlife in trade, has submitted a crisis management plan for cycads to the Department and the proposals in this plan are currently being evaluated. South Africa’s legislation allows the Scientific Authority to withhold authorisation for trade if there is evidence that trade has a detrimental impact on wild populations of threatened species. The Scientific Authority is planning a workshop for January or February 2011 to assess whether the current trade in cycads is detrimental to the survival of wild cycad populations.

Examples of cycads under threat

Encephalartos brevifoliolatus: This cycad was only discovered in 1996 when a small population was found in a remote mountainous area in Limpopo Province. The only known population comprised 5-7 plants. Several of these plants were removed by poachers and conservation officials then removed the last stems to a safe location in 2004.

Encephalartos inopinus: This is an unusual species with very distinctive leaves that resemble cycads from Mexico. Conservation authorities in Limpopo have been monitoring this species since 1992 and the population declined from 677 in 1992 to only 81 in 2004. There are unconfirmed reports that the species has declined even further since 2004 and may even be extinct in the wild.

Encephalartos latifrons: This cycad, commonly known as the Albany cycad has declined to the point where fewer than 60 plants exist in the wild. Some farmers have been protecting this plant on their own land and it is due to their efforts that the cycad still occurs on private land. A species management plan developed for the Albany cycad recognises this positive role and supports use of seeds derived from these well managed populations to propagate seedlings. One of the most important aspects of the management plan is that is includes all the main stakeholders involved with the wild populations.

More information:

South African National Biodiversity Institute




Science in Africa - Africa's First On-Line Science Magazine

Return to Home PageReturn to the TopYour FeedbackRegister with "Science in Africa" 

Copyright  Science in Africa, Science magazine for Africa CC. All Rights Reserved

Terms and Conditions