The Wild Cycad Conservancy

Protecting the world’s most threatened plant species from extinction in South Africa

WHY cycads

Protecting cycads

Cycads are an ancient group of seed plants. 

There were once widespread during the age of the dinosaurs, making up about a fifth of the flora. Cycad fossils date back 300 million years and have been found on every continent. They were abundant during the Jurassic period and with conifers and Ginkoales, dominated the forests in numbers, size and diversity.

The cycads we see today are modern derivatives of this ancient lineage, with new species evolving and adapting to life in forest, savanna, grassland and semi desert habitats. 

They often exist in relatively small populations and may grow on poor soil or rocky areas where they can survive fires and have less competition from other plants. 

Over their long history, cycads have survived previous mass extinctions affecting the earth’s biodiversity.

Despite this incredible resilience, they are now one of the most threatened groups of organisms on earth with about 70% of all species face some risk of extinction.


of all species facing some risk of extinction

Each country faces its own unique set of challenges to prevent species’ extinction. Populations in Central and South America, as well as Asia, suffer mostly from habitat loss as more land is cleared for agriculture or human settlements. In contrast, populations in southern Africa have declined primarily due to the harvest of plants from the wild.

Why South Africa matters

South Africa is one of the hotspots for cycad diversity with 38 indigenous species in two genera, Encephalartos and Stangeria. It ranks third, after Australia and Mexico as a centre of cycad diversity and is home to more than 10% of the world’s cycad species.

And yet South Africa has the dubious distinction to be the only country in the world where poaching of wild specimens for the horticultural trade is the leading reason for the loss of plants and species. Currently five species are considered extinct in the wild and 10 more are Critically Endangered – all as a result of the illegal trade.

All 37 species of Encephalartos in South Africa are protected by law. It is therefore illegal to harvest, trade, sell, buy, import, export or receive in any form ANY wild cycad.

What’s more, all cycad species are listed in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), with all Encephalartos listed in Appendix I, which provides the greatest degree of regulation. This international treaty aims to protect animals and plant species that are in international trade and are threatened (or may become threatened in future) with extinction.

The biology of cycads 

Cycads have male and female reproductive structures expressed on different individuals (dioecious), which means they need a “male”, or pollen plant and a “female” or ovulate plant for the species to reproduce sexually. They have retained one particularly primitive feature for plants, which is the motile sperm that is released at the time of fertilization and swims to link up with the ovulate cell. We also now know that almost all cycads are pollinated by specialist insects. In South Africa, all the known pollinators are beetles that live and reproduce in the pollen cones and periodically fly across to the ovulate cone when pollination takes place.

Species of Encephalartos are endemic to Africa and are often best known from those that have a tall trunk and may resemble palm trees. However, there is considerable variation among species. At least nine species have short ‘dwarf’ stems and typically grow in dense clusters. A further six species’ stems grow underground. The taller species are commonly called ‘bread trees’ or ‘bread palms’.

Africa has one other cycad genus, with only a single species. Stangeria eriopus (or Stanger’s Cycad) occurs on the east coast of South Africa and southern Mozambique.

Cycads are very long-lived plants and can grow to be hundreds of years old. Like many long-lived species, they take a long time to mature, growing for 10 to 20 years before they produce their first cones or develop a full whorl of leaves. Stem growth occurs when a new whorl of leaves is formed and the period between these growth increments can vary between one and five years. The oldest recorded specimen of Encephalartos in cultivation is found at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London and was collected in South Africa in 1772. There are anecdotal reports of cycads growing in temples in Japan that are even older.