The presence of cycads on the list of endangered plants is simply another note in the growing litany of plants we might lose and the statistics are bad with 79% of the 261 species of cycads in global decline.
Young scientists however believe that knowledge and information can impact on declines in populations and Stephen Cousins of Wits University an MSC candidate in the department of Animal Plant and Environmental Sciences, is determined to have an impact on changing the decline in cycads in the wild.
In 2009 Cousins undertook a study of the trade in cycads in the two main muthi markets in South Africa: Warwick Ave in Durban and Faraday street in Johannesburg. Research had been previously conducted on cycads around 2000 but the main difficulty lay in the fact that it is fragments of cycads that are traded. Dried fragments are hard to identify and this posed the real challenge to Cousins. No one had identified the species being traded and so only suspected volumes of the trade in cycads could be recorded. This was not helpful as without an understanding of what are the most common species being traded, the age of the plants being harvested and a sense of what parts of the plants are being harvested it would not be possible to predict or assess the real impact of the trade on populations of cycads.
Cousins devised a simple but useful circular measurement chart which made it possible for measurements of stem fragments to be made. He then interviewed traders about the source of their plants. Surprisingly the Warwick street traders were relatively open about their sources. Knowing the areas where the cycads came from allowed for a more rapid identification of species. Cousins could match the location with the known populations of cycads and re-examine the fragments based on a better idea of what species they might be.
Muthi traders are aware that the trade in cycads is illegal and so are wary of sharing information with anyone. They tend to hide their stock of cycad fragments. It is estimated that about a quarter of the traders at the two main markets carry cycad stock but the estimates of the volume of the trade are all conservative because no one really knows how much is being concealed. Even with conservative estimates however the volume of cycad fragments being traded in the main markets has increased hugely since 2001 and Cousins estimated that the volume being traded at Warwick market in 2009 was approximately 9 metric tons per annum.
The increase in demand and supply has serious consequences for wild populations. Whereas traditional methods of muthi harvesting always protected the source, the contemporary free for all of muthi harvesting is not about sustainability. The methods of harvesting fragments from stems and the pith of these slow growing plants has become so destructive that ancient old stands of cycads are now dying and succumbing to disease and ultimate death. The harvesters are now wantonly stripping plants without any concern for their slow growth or survival.
The three species Cousins identified as most commonly harvested are Encephalartos Villosus, E. Ghellincki, E.Natalensis a further three were E. Nyoyanus, E. Senticosus and E. Ferox. The age of the plants being harvested is mostly semi adult to adult. Cycads have very little food value with only some species providing a substitute flour which is used mainly in times of famine, that is the reason for the Afrikaans name of broodboom. The main use of cycads in traditional medicine is for protection. It is believed that cycads offer protection from the tokoloshe and other evil spirits. Cousins believes there are more cycad species being traded than those he identified, but their numbers are smaller than the six main species he identified. He does point out that the main threat to the survival of cycads in the wild remains the harvesting of whole plants for illegal sale, however the extent and nature of their harvesting in the wild for muthi is tipping the scales into freefall. Cousins believes that closer monitoring of wild populations and education are the best long term solutions to slowing the decline in wild populations.