Cycads blogSouth Africa’s endangered cycads are disappearing from the wild and from botanical gardens.

University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers are using a novel method that has been used to trace cocaine, explosives and bank notes to trace our critically endangered cycads. In a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences and reported in Nature, Kirsten Retief and colleagues at UCT and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) describe their use of stable isotopes and radiocarbon dating to identify cycads removed from the wild.


3. Coning specimen of E. friderici guilielmi in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. K

Cycads arenot only the world’s oldest seed plants; they are also the most endangered. South Africa is home to 38 indigenous cycad species, and is therefore an important centre for cycad diversity. However, 12 of those species are critically endangered and three are classified by SANBI as extinct in the wild. Trading in these endangered cycads is illegal---banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)---but enforcing the law relies on the ability to prove that a cycad is someone’s garden came from the wild.

Coning specimen of E. friderici guilielmi in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. K

SANBI approached UCT for help in developing a technique to trace cycads that showed up in suspicious locations where they’d never been seen before. "There is a great sense of urgency", says Dr West of UCT. "These plants are disappearing from the wild over timeframes in the order of weeks and months, not years."

You can support the valuable work being done to protect the cycads.


  1. Purchase your Mad about Cycads reusable shopper from Woolworths and visit their website to find out more
  2. Donate to the Botanical Society and support the fundraising strategy. Donations may attract tax exemption (Section 18A tax certificate) issued by the BotSoc
  3. Make BotSoc your MyPlanet beneficiary!
  4. Find out facts about cycads and the law at

This story has been edited from the Veld & Flora issue 101(1) March 2015 and from original written by Carolyn Newton at UCT.

For more information please contact the Botanical Society of South Africa and we will direct you to researchers working on cycad conservation initiatives.

share with a friend blue