Cycads - The prehistoric plant going extinct

Updated: Nov 27


The genus Cycas is considered as one of the primitive plant groups (having naked seeds) and is botanically classified under Gymnosperms, existing for about 300 million years. All the members of the order Cycadales are commonly and collectively called Cycads. Scientists believe that the Cycads might have been a favourite food for the herbivorous giant Dinosaurs, which became extinct during the Jurassic Period, about 145 million years ago in the geological time scale.

Dinosaurs have become entirely extinct while some of the Cycads have managed to survive even today, that is why they are regarded as the “Living Fossils”. They are also called “Plant Dinosaurs”. Until recently, it was thought that they were remnants from the Jurassic period, but contemporary research proposes that cycads stem from an evolutionary explosion that initiated about 12 million years ago. There are 308 species of cycad worldwide. Hotspots of cycad diversity are southern Africa, Australia, Indo Pacific and Mexico.

A species of cycad growing healthily in an unknown location.

Structure and Importance

Cycads are considered important plant group from a phylogenetic point of view. The genus Cycas is very slow in growth and development, which produces a crown of leaves usually once or twice in a year and also produce the male and female cones once in a year. Cycas species are palm-like in appearance due to the presence of a crown of bird’s feather-like leaves and persistent leaf bases all around the stem. However, they are not palms in reality, but they are not trees in genuineness either, since they lack woody stems. They usually produce two types of roots, normal underground roots, for anchoring and absorption of water and minerals, and coralloid roots, for nitrogen fixation.

Illegal Harvesting and other threats

In South Africa, almost 70% of our cycad species are threatened with extinction, with four species on the brink of extinction and seven species with fewer than 100 plants left in the wild. The primary threat to South African cycads is illegal harvesting for landscaping purposes and private collections, mostly to satisfy a domestic market. This avid collecting has devastated many wild cycad populations. There are three types of people that drive the South African illegal cycad trade. The Opportunist, who makes massive profits by arranging for poachers to steal wild cycads or by buying cycads from poachers at a cheap price to sell for a much higher value.

The egotist, who wants to show off his large, rare cycads purchased at an excellent rate. The Naive, who is sucked into various misconceptions about the cycad trade and often ends up getting conned by the seller. South African cycads are facing extinction mainly due to bark harvest. Three species of cycads are extinct in South Africa due to bark harvesting for medicinal purpose. This threat is global, national, regional and community levels. A study found that among other things the bark is utilised mainly for medicinal purposes (25%) and hard drugs (37.5%).

Recovery of cycads from poachers

Poachers age range from young to the elderly. The male cones have medicinal properties (aphrodisiac and narcotic properties) due to that reason they are illegally cut and sold for R1,500/- per cone in the vegetable crude drug markets of South India. The seeds of Cycas are considered toxic to livestock and also human beings as they contain neurotoxic and carcinogenic (causes cancer) chemicals; still they are being harvested, processed and used as food by the tribal and local people mainly in the state of Kerala. The male cones of Cycas are considered as anti cancerous (cures cancer). In addition to the male and female cones, the leaves are exploited by the tribal and local people for ornamental and ceremonial purposes.

Habitat fragmentation is one of the main threats faced by ecosystems across the world, and many species and the habitats they live in are at risk. Habitat fragmentation often occurs as a result of anthropogenic impacts, such as rural or urban development. Habitat fragmentation can also reduce the amount of gene flow between populations, affecting both plant and animal species, which are often reliant on each other. The resulting removal of suitable continuous habitat between populations may alter pollen and seed dispersal vector behaviour.

This can cause problems with the dispersal of plant species seed and or pollen between newly fragmented populations if the disperser is unable to cross the altered habitat matrix. There is an increasing amount of evidence that loss of biodiversity may be accelerated by a changing climate. Likely to affect a change in the fire regime, resulting from a warming climate and increased drought prevalence.

Cycad bark among other illegally traded items.


Cycads are considered one of the most threatened groups of plants, with 62 % of all species listed on the IUCN Red List. Around 70% of known cycad species are threatened with extinction globally. Due to risk associated with international trade in wild-collected specimens, all SA Encephalartos spp. Is listed in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix I. This number includes three Extinct in the Wild (EW), 12Critically Endangered (CR), four Endangered (EN), seven Near Threatened (NT), eight Vulnerable (VU), and three Least Concern (LC) species Harvesting of wild cycads without a permit has been illegal since the 1970s. As of May 2012, it was prohibited to harvest, trade, sell, buy, donate, import, export, convey or receive any wild cycads (even plants that have possession permits).

Despite conservation efforts there has been steady increase in the threat status and decrease in population trend in all continents where they occur. These globally threatened species demands conservation attention to prevent their total extinction. In India C. revoluta, another Cycas species namely C. circinalis is commonly conserved in some of the botanic gardens of colleges, universities and research institutions in India.

The wealthy may use cycads as a status symbol

Once upon a time, the genus Cycas was common in occurrence, but now, they have become uncommon (endangered) in their natural habitats Fortunately, the Government of India has taken legal steps to protect/conserve this unique plant group from further depletion in the wild, by placing them in the Negative list of Exports in 1998, which bans its illegal trade/exports collected from wild populations. Out of the 190 protected areas identified as suitable in 10 Southeast Asian countries, China has the highest number of protected area followed by India and Vietnam. The use of ENM tools for conservation of Cycads has also been suggested. Apart from the instructive recommendations given by researchers, several practical efforts have been carried out by governments. All Cycas species in China were given first-grade state protection when The National Key Protected Wild Plants was authorised in 1999. Apart from these nature reserves, botanical gardens have also contributed to the endeavour. South China Botanical Garden was the first organisation to conduct ex situ conservation for cycads, with 43 species belonging to nine genera currently planted.

A nature conservation centre for cycad germplasm resources was established by Shenzhen Fair Lake Botanical Garden (SZBG) in 2002. To date, nearly 240 species embracing two families and ten genera have been collected. A reintroduction plan initiated by the State Forestry Administration of China and SZBG for C. debaoensis was implemented in 2007. According to a follow-up study, the reintroduced seedlings in Huanglian Mountain Nature Reserve in Debao County, Guangxi, have started flowering and seed setting.

What are the signs of illegal cycad harvesting? And how you can help

How do I know that I am buying an ILLEGAL CYCAD? An argument that is often made by cycad collectors and nurseries is that ‘I didn’t know that I was buying a wild cycad.’ Here are some guidelines that should set alarm bells ringing. A cycad may be of wild origin if it has one or more of the following features:

▪ micro-chip in the stem (the plant would need to be scanned to determine whether the micro-chip identifies the plant as a legal garden cycad or a wild cycad).

▪ Stem with strange deformities.

▪ Stem sanded with wire brush or sand paper to remove burnt leaf bases.

▪ Cut marks on the stem made from a panga when removing the cycad from the wild

▪ deep holes in the base of the stem where poachers have tried to remove the microchip.

▪ Absence of leaves.

▪ Numerous old leaves still attached to the stem or recently removed (this is the dress of the cycad, which is usually cut off in garden specimens).

▪ No permit or the permit is not for the correct size and threatened status of the species.

A healthy growing Cycad

Take home message

Sometimes we are so bombarded with all the charismatic animals that are under threat of extinction such as rhino’s, elephants and tigers that we forget about the less popular plants. Cycads have been around since the dinosaurs roamed. I think that’s something cool and exciting. This nothing wrong with buying cycads for your garden as long as it was purchased from a sustainable source. If the place selling them looks a bit dodgy, and you don’t feel comfortable, instead of walk away and report the company to the police.


(Abd, 2018) (James, Forster, Lamont, & Shapcott, 2018) (Chacón-vargas, García-merchán, & Sanín, 2019) (Ma et al., 2018)(Pradhan & Chettri, 2017) (Bamigboye Samuel, Tshisikhawe Peter, & Taylor Peter, 2017) (Retief, West, & Pfab, 2015) (Swart, Rowswell, Donaldson, & Barker, 2019) (Hill, Stevenson, & Osborne, 2004) (Zheng, Liu, Feng, & Gong, 2017)(Bamigboye, 2016) (Williamson et al., 2016) (Mugo & Town, 2013).


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