Important specimens from one of the world´s oldest and rarest species of plant were stolen last weekend, covert ops style, from a botanical garden in South Africa. The species, cycads, is so old, in fact, that their broad leaves were casting shadows even before there walked any dinosaur to appreciate the shade. For some time, cycads were abundant and could be found across the globe, but today they are so rare, one large plant can fetch as much as $10,000. The brazen theft of the rare species has botanists concerned that some endangered plants may be lost before being recognized by the scientific community.Rare Plants Worth a Small Fortune
Erin Conway-Smith reports in the GlobalPost, thieves plowed through the security gates of South Africa´s Durban Botanic Gardens last weekend and made off with 20 of the rarest species of prehistoric plant--a haul valued at $65,000. A high demand for cycads in the United States and Asia has created a black market for the endangered flora.
According to Philip Rousseau of the University of Johannesburg, the theft reveals knowledge of the plants that extends beyond petty crime:
They knew exactly which ones to go for. These are sophisticated people that know what they're doing because these plants are worth so much. Cycads are such popular plants, and there is such great demand, it's insane what people will pay.
Is it Part of a Growing Trend?
Smuggling of endangered plants, such as the cycad, is illegal under international law, but criminals have found a simple way of sneaking past security measures--by simply removing the plant´s characteristic leaves, rendering them unrecognizable to immigration authorities. Authorities are hoping new DNA identifying technology will become available to test suspicious plants as they arrive at checkpoints intended to prevent such exportation.
Cycad seedlings have been found tracing back to before the dinosaurs and are considered the oldest seedling plant on earth, say Conway-Smith, which makes the few remaining examples of the species so precious for researchers. Apparently, a newly discovered variant of cycad was completely pillaged from the wild before researchers even had the chance to record it. Clearly, the black-market demand for cycads is extraordinary.
The latest, and perhaps most extreme case of cycad theft should be concerning to all who appreciate biodiversity, for as Earth´s endangered species become increasingly rare, it may be wealthy collectors who drive the final nail into the coffin of extinction, as they are threatening to do with this rare, primitive species of plant. It would be sad irony if a prehistoric plant, which survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, were to be lost to the world due to the greed of a few selfish collectors.