Can World Cycad Conservation Become A Reality?

By Tom Broome

As I think about all the tasks involved to insure world cycad conservation, it seems to be an impossible job for one person to handle. Our society has many members from every walk of life, with a multitude of talents. Whether you own a nursery, have a talent for writing, or just like to keep your yard looking nice, you can in some way help with cycad conservation.
Let's at least look at some of the problems at hand. All over the world, cycad habitats are being destroyed. In some countries, the forests are being clear cut for timber, with no regard for the other plants in the area. In many countries, small populations of cycads will get wiped out to plant crops. In Mexico, I have heard of five hundred-year-old specimens of Dioon edule being destroyed to plant twenty dollars worth of corn in their place. In probably all countries where cycads are native, plants are being destroyed for housing of one kind or another. We are not immune to this here in the United States. In Florida, thousands of the native Zamias are being wiped out every year for subdivisions, shopping centers, and other kinds of land use. If you own land, and want to build on it, you can destroy all the coontie you want without even having to get a permit. If you want to dig the plants up and try to sell them, then you need to get a permit for that. Coontie that are in wetlands, or coastal areas, are protected just because of the location and not because they are on the endangered species list.
Even though the C.I.T.E.S. regulations have reduced poaching to some extent, it still happens in many countries. With the demand for cycads on the increase, prices have also gone up. Encephalartos species in Africa are selling for a premium, with large specimens going for thousands of dollars. For the most part, the only way to get a large plant is to remove it from the wild. In Florida, with the increase in demand for native plants, thousands of Zamias are being poached every year.
Our botanical gardens are the repositories for our endangered species throughout the world. A botanical garden can get a permit to remove a cycad from the wild for research purposes, where a nursery owner cannot. As far as I know, there are only three botanical gardens in the United States that have a regular cycad pollination program. I was asked not to mention the names of these gardens for security reasons. After asking many of the directors from other gardens why they don't pollinate their cycads I got a variety of answers. For the most part, they felt they did not have the money to pay someone to do this. Others had no interest at all in trying to propagate their cycads. Even though these gardens are allowed to bring cycads into this country, they are dooming the cycads to a slow death without the chance to reproduce themselves.
As if all these problems aren't enough to worry about, it seems that many of the cycad experts can't even get along with each other, yet alone agree on ways to conserve cycads. Many collectors fight amongst themselves for reasons such as jealousy, or competition for plants with a marginal availability. You would think a group of people with a common goal would work together to reach this goal. This is why cooperation amongst society members is essential to make world cycad conservation a reality.
Now that I have discussed the problems, what can we do to help solve these problems? The most important way is to preserve the natural habitats, and the insect pollinators associated with the various species. There are wildlife funds, and rain forest preservation funds that are set up to save many of our forests. Many times they are not specifically trying to save cycad habitats, but on the other hand, there are many cycads in some of these forests. Eco-tourism is starting to become a big business. One group in Costa Rica has helped to preserve the habitat of Zamia fairchildiana by bringing tourists out to see the cycads. If people can make a living from the land without destroying it, the plants can be preserved. I have heard of ecotour companies in Costa Rica, Peru, and South Africa, and I am sure there are others.
There are two projects that have the best direct influence to save the cycad populations. One project headed by Andrew Vovides in Mexico, and one by the kaNgwane Parks Corporation in South Africa. A small township of people in Mexico has decided to pick the seeds from the native Dioon edule population, and grow them in a nursery situation. Portions of the seedlings produced are planted back into the habitat, and the rest are sold to make an income. In the first year, they doubled what they had made growing crops the year before. In South Africa, the Mananga Village is working on a similar project where they are trying to save Encephalartos lebomboensis, and E. paucidentatus. They have sold seedlings locally and throughout the world.
Another important way to save the cycads is to propagate them in any possible way. This may simplify the matter just a little, but if there were just three hundred individuals, nurseries, and botanical gardens that would propagate larger quantities of just one species each, none of the species would become extinct. There are many people who could take on the task of growing five species at a time. We would only need sixty people this way. If someone were to do this, they should make sure that the group of species could not cross- pollinate with each other. The two examples I have already mentioned are a great way to save the plants and the habitat. Others could start their own corporation and save a habitat of their choice. People who live in countries where cycads are native could buy habitats in their own area. Even if you don't have cycads that are native, it still would help to choose a target species that may grow well and produce cones in your area. This will reduce the pressure from the wild populations, at least from poaching. Many of the botanical gardens might want to propagate their cycads but can't pay someone to do the job. If each botanical garden would target a single species, it would not take a lot of time to do this. Many species will drop pollen and become receptive over a three or four week period. This way a worker could spend twenty minutes a day at the most for four weeks and propagate these plants. Many gardens have a problem with theft. They also normally don't want to have a large group of the same species on display. If the garden took aside a small area in a more private location, they could take care of a colony and avoid these two problems. If you want to propagate cycads but really don't have the area to do it, ask your local botanical garden if you could propagate theirs. The three gardens that are pollinating their plants now are doing this mainly with volunteer help. I would also like to see cooperation between interested individuals and national parks, where someone could come in, fertilize the cycads, and increase the seed production. A fraction of the seedlings could be planted back in the habitat, and some could be distributed to botanical gardens, and concerned individuals.
If you can't work directly with cycads but like to write, you can write our local government agencies to see what they can do to help preserve our native habitats and plants. It also wouldn't hurt to write to officials in other countries, praising them for their efforts in saving cycad habitats. I know Costa Rica and Thailand have turned over quite a bit of their land to use as national parks. Writing any kind of article about cycad conservation or propagation can help get the word out to as many people as possible.
As a society, we should get along together for the benefit of cycad conservation. With the free exchange of information, we can all benefit. The cycad list on the Internet has been an excellent way to exchange information all over the world. Our society as a group, or an individual chapter could fund projects like the installation of a cycad garden at a local college. By teaching our students about cycads early, they would get exposure to these great plants where normally they might not even be taught anything about them. A chapter could provide a small scholarship to the student who learned the most about cycads, or had performed some sort of research with cycads. I think this would be very motivating for students.
Even if all you want to do is keep your yard looking nice; you can help with promoting cycads. Display your cycads, and invite classes from a local school to tour your collection. I know if someone had taught me about cycads when I was in high school, I would have started growing them 25 years earlier. The school children of today, will be the cycad experts and conservationists of the future.
There are many people throughout the world that are doing their part to promote cycad conservation in their own way. No matter what your forte may be, we can all do our part in the task to conserve cycads. If we all work together, and do what is best for the cycads, world cycad conservation can become a reality.