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Philip Rousseau visits a garden of cycads on the University of Johannesburg campus. Mr. Rousseau, a graduate student, has worked on a project to create a DNA barcode database of cycad species in South Africa with the hope it will eventually be used to help catch smugglers who target rare and nearly extinct species of the plant. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith)
Philip Rousseau visits a garden of cycads on the University of Johannesburg campus. Mr. Rousseau, a graduate student, has worked on a project to create a DNA barcode database of cycad species in South Africa with the hope it will eventually be used to help catch smugglers who target rare and nearly extinct species of the plant. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith)

After 12 million years, plant species at risk of extinction Add to ...

When the moon is full, the poachers come out at night, stalking the hills and mountains of South Africa in search of their valuable prey.

They’re not hunting for ivory or rhino horn. They’re searching for something just as valuable: an endangered 12-million-year-old plant species, the cycad, which can sell for as much as $100,000 on the global black market.

Prized for their rarity and oddity and their link to the prehistoric age, cycads have become objects of fascination for a cult of hard-core collectors around the world. But poaching by organized criminal syndicates has become so devastating that many African cycad species are threatened with extinction in the wild, forcing officials to consider a ban on their trade and prompting a scientific race to catalogue their DNA so they will be harder to smuggle.

Cycads, which look like a cross between a fern and a prehistoric palm, are descended from extinct species of cycads that lived with the dinosaurs in the Jurassic period. Some cycads can take centuries to reach maturity, with their trunks ranging in height from a few centimetres to several metres.

They are among the world’s oldest seed plants, never producing flowers or fruit, relying instead on huge seed cones and using beetles for pollination. Many cycads contain dangerous neurotoxins or carcinogens, along with spiky leaves that are sharp enough to draw blood.

Collectors in Asia and North America are willing to pay huge sums for the rarest of these odd prehistoric plants. And now organized crime syndicates have swooped into the business.

After years of rampant poaching and trafficking, at least four cycad species in Africa have become extinct, with most of those extinctions happening in the past decade. South Africa is one of the world’s last remaining havens for cycads, yet 31 per cent of its cycad species are now listed as critically endangered, and almost all of its cycads are in serious decline in the wild.

In the wilderness of Limpopo province, north of Pretoria, landowners are embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with the cycad poachers, sending out patrols and even helicopters to pursue them.

“These are unbelievably well-organized and highly profitable criminal syndicates,” says Niel Maritz, who owns a game lodge in Limpopo with hundreds of cycads on it.

“It’s happening right under our noses, but the terrain is so difficult that you have to stumble onto them,” he added. “They come in the full moon, they remove the plants at night, and then they get picked up in the morning. In a year or two, at the current rate, there won’t be many cycads left in the wild.”

Last week, when fresh tracks of poachers were spotted on a neighbouring farm, Mr. Maritz joined a patrol on the chase. But they lost the tracks when a heavy rainstorm erupted. “We’re fighting the war on the ground, but these guys are just the labourers in the syndicates,” he said. “It’s completely out of control.”

On his own farm, poachers have raided the mountains in search of cycads, chopping them up into smaller plants that can be transported. He managed to save about 200 of the cycads by moving them to a secure garden near his house, after obtaining a permit from local officials.

In Eastern Cape province, farmers have reported that poachers arrive with pickup trucks and winches to pull out cycads from river valleys.

“They’re well-organized, they know where the plants are, and they know exactly how to avoid being caught in possession,” said David Newton, director of the Southern and East Africa regions of TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the global wildlife trade.

Cycads are also cultivated in nurseries and botanical gardens, which have become the target of well-organized robberies, forcing them to hire security guards.

Traders are permitted to export artificially propagated cycads from South Africa, and more than 5,000 were exported in 2009 alone. But the government lacks the resources to ensure that these exports are properly monitored and inspected, Mr. Newton said.

A few unscrupulous nurseries have obtained permits to sell seedlings and then illegally replaced them with mature plants from the wild, he said.

Mr. Newton’s organization has called for a complete ban on the trade of cycads, but South Africa has suggested instead a regulation that would halt the trade of only a limited number of cycad species. The regulation, opposed by private cycad owners, has not yet been approved.

To smuggle the cycads out of Africa, the traffickers often strip them of all their foliage, leaving only a naked trunk that can be almost impossible for customs officials to identify.

A scientific project at the University of Johannesburg could make it easier to identify rare species of cycads when they are inspected at border crossings. The project is using a DNA barcoding system to create a database of cycad species. Ultimately their DNA could be checked by customs officials with a small handheld device, preventing cycads from being smuggled illegally. It’s part of the International Barcode of Life project, headquartered at the University of Guelph in Ontario, which seeks to catalogue all of the earth’s biodiversity.

Philip Rousseau, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg who has worked on the DNA barcoding project, is worried that wild cycads could face extinction.

“You can go into the wilderness to where they are supposed to be, walk around for hours and not find any,” he said.

“They’ve survived all this time, but now they’re barely hanging on.”

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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