Modern Battle to Save Ancient Plants

Cycads have been around since stegosaurs roamed the planet, but poachers are quickly driving these remarkable plants to extinction

  • Don Boroughs
  • Feb 01, 2003

ON THE MORNING of July 21, 2001, several of the world's richest smugglers of rare plants were in the midst of seemingly perfect American vacations. Rolf Bauer and Jan Van Vuuren of South Africa had just spent two days in Las Vegas, compliments of a real-estate magnate. Their new friend promised to fly them by private jet that morning to San Francisco, where the two exporters could unload some $80,000 worth of contraband African cycads: ancient, palmlike plants coveted by gardeners for their beauty and rarity.

The day dawned just as brightly in California for Australian Peter Heibloem, a cycad syndicate leader who once boasted of exporting plants "straight out of the national park." Heibloem had accepted a free ticket from a customer to address a Southern California cycad society. And in Hollywood, South African Ernie Bouwer, who specialized in rare cycads selling for as much as $35,000 apiece, was enjoying his first overseas trip, a gift from the same customer.

By 9 o'clock that morning, however, the fantasy vacations of all four cycad dealers had ended. Their friends and customers revealed their true identities: special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Operation Botany, the largest undercover investigation of plant smuggling ever, spanning two years, was complete. The net fell on a total of six traffickers from four continents that day.

The slaughter of elephants and rhinos by animal poachers easily ignites public ire, but plant poachers are quietly wreaking as much havoc, if not more, with their shovels. And no group of plants is being plundered more rapidly than cycads. Of the world's 298 cycad species, more than half are endangered, vulnerable or extinct. In Southern Africa, the epicenter of the cycad crisis, two-thirds of all species face extinction. "They are going to wipe these species out within years," warns Superintendent. Bernadine Benson, chief of the South African Police Service's Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU).

BOOM IN BUSTS: South African Police Captain Gert van der Merwe (left) removes cycad poaching suspects from a police truck. The officer, posing as a cycad buyer, allowed the suspects to load his unmarked truck with the trunks of rare Lydenburg cycads before revealing his cover.


Law-enforcement agencies around the world are mobilizing to deal with this problem. Benson's unit arrests dozens of poachers each year. And U.S. officials have recognized that the international cycad syndicates require a major offensive. "This is not a mom-and-pop business," says Ernest Mayer, the former head of FWS Special Operations. Conservationists fear that the counterattack may have started too late, however. After 250 million years on Earth, cycads are running out of time.

Long before the first flowering plants appeared, cycads--along with ferns and conifers--dominated the landscape of the ancient supercontinent of Pangea. Stegosaurs and iguanadons fed on their leathery leaves. Then as now, some had trunks that towered like telephone poles, while others resembled half-buried rugby balls. All were crowned with long, sturdy fronds, which often surrounded a clump of giant cones--the largest in the plant world. Though these tough plants survived the catastrophe that extinguished dinosaurs, competition from rapidly adapting flowering plants backed cycads into small corners of the world's tropical and subtropical regions. (Florida hosts the only surviving cycad in the United States, known as the coontie.) Growing and reproducing at a glacial pace, cycads have evolved little since they first flourished.

Their association with dinosaurs, along with their stout trunks and spiked leaves, give cycads a macho appeal that may help fuel the passions of the mostly male aficionados. But it is their rarity that drives collectors to fever. Douglas Goode, author of Cycads of Africa, laments that to discover and scientifically describe a new cycad species "is a death warrant" for the plant. He knows, because in 1983 he first described Encephalartos cerinus, a species of waxy cycad that grew in two gorges of eastern South Africa and numbered about 250. A year ago, Goode spent four days searching the gorges and found only holes in the rocky soil and "a few small ones in a cliff where only the vultures could reach them," he recalls. "Cycad collectors will stop at nothing."

In South Africa, the officers of the ESPU are about the only force standing between the appetite of wealthy collectors and cycad extinction. On a balmy May day along a dusty road in the Strydpoortberge Mountains, Captain Gert van der Merwe is working on the bottom of the poachers' pyramid: the poor rural Africans who rip the plants from the soil. Van der Merwe has heard from an informant that a villager is peddling rare Lydenburg cycads. So, posing as a collector, he enters the village. As word of his arrival spreads, several young men retrieve cycad bulbs, or caudexes, from the long grass and out from under bags of corn in their huts. Six poachers load the booty into an unmarked police pickup, while their leader brags that his men had to hang from ropes off a cliff-edge to remove these rarities. As soon as the men are trapped in the back of the vehicle, van der Merwe and his partner pull out their firearms and lock in the suspects and the incriminating evidence. The heap of 46 Lydenburg cycads in the pickup are perhaps a fifth of the world's remaining wild population of this species.

Most plundered South African cycads end up in suburban gardens in Pretoria and Johannesburg. As many as 2 million cycads decorate South African yards, perhaps twice as many as survive in the wild on the entire continent. But many wild cycads are also appearing in California and other Sun Belt states. "We are talking about millions of dollars of cycads being smuggled into the U.S. every year," says a covert investigator from Operation Botany. "It's organized crime."

Special Agent Kenneth McCloud has seen a lot in 25 years of work for FWS, but the bravado of cycad dealers took him by surprise. "They were pretty open and cavalier about their smuggling activities," says McCloud, "bragging about how they can fool officials." Their strategy was simple: Strip the leaves from a cycad caudex, and an endangered cycad becomes indistinguishable from a common one. Roots and leaves grow back once the caudex is replanted. Exporters sent shipments of mislabeled caudexes to McCloud's California "business," HU Enterprises, and then faxed him lists of the plants' true identities. In a July 2001 shipment of 114 cycads, for example, Bauer sent McCloud a Munch's cycad from Mozambique?only 17 specimens of which are known to survive. This one was labeled a Karoo cycad, which thrives in the thousands.

Rolf Bauer's main competitor in the South African cycad market, Ernest Bouwer, has his own take on the mislabeling of cycads. Walking among "the largest private collection of cycads in the world," as he calls his Johannesburg garden, Bouwer says that his only crime was "laziness." Bouwer pleaded guilty to shipping incorrectly identified plants, but says that he simply made changes to his shipments as scarcer cycads became available. "I could have had the permits changed," he protests. Indeed, the cycad dealer seemed to have had no trouble obtaining permits. In a taped telephone conversation with a covert investigator, Bouwer said that he slipped a government conservation official about a thousand dollars each time the bureaucrat supplied the necessary export paperwork.

CHIPPING AWAY: To combat the rising tide of cycad poaching, South African authorities are inserting computer chip spikes into rare plants. The chips are programmed with data that, read by a scanner can help police prove a cycad was collected illegally in the wild. More ancient than flowering plants, the cone-bearing cycads (such as this Modjadji cycad) have changed little since they first appeared on the planet 250 million years ago.


Bouwer adds that he respected the spirit of the law because, he says, "all of the plants were out of my garden." There is no doubt that the South African propagates huge numbers of legal cycads. His backyard is so crammed with drums of seeds and pots of seedlings that it is sometimes hard to find a place to step. And it is often difficult to prove that a cycad was not innocently raised in a garden or taken from the wild before such collecting became illegal in the 1970s.

But not always. According to his indictment, Bouwer sent a covert investigator 34 Encephalartos hirsutus, an endangered cycad that was discovered in the 1980s. Bouwer's exporting partner, Heibloem, once told the investigator, "hirsutus is the only plant in South Africa that they can absolutely, positively, definitely say every single plant is illegally collected." (For as long as collectors have known of its existence, the taking of seeds or plants from the wild has been illegal.) The undercover agent who imported from Bouwer also says that plants sent by all of the smugglers were frequently marked with signs of the wild: porcupine teeth marks, gouges from hasty digging and fire scars.

When pressed, Bouwer says he's worried about endangered cycads, but he figures they are safer in his garden, behind a six-foot, electrified wall. But keeping a rare plant in an isolated garden is not conservation, notes John Donaldson, head of the Cycad Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union. Once separated from the environment where it interacts with soil bacteria and pollinating weevils, that cycad might never return safely to the wild. "In terms of evolution and ongoing natural processes, that plant is gone, it's finished, it's dead," he says. "It's a neat little garden statue."

Even in the wild, several cycad species are already doomed to extinction. The five remaining specimens of the escarpment cycad are all males. Four other species in Africa have dwindled to fewer than 50 plants, a point that Donaldson says leads to "total reproductive collapse." Most South African cycads depend on pollination by a weevil species specific to each cycad. The weevils in turn require a healthy cycad population with a steady supply of cones on which to feed. Already, the weevil pollinators of several rare cycads are missing, one extinction foreshadowing the next. Botanist Piet Vorster, president of the Cycad Society of South Africa, expects several cycad species to disappear from the wild in his lifetime, adding, "there's not a thing I can do about it."

Most South African conservationists are still determined to protect their rarest cycads. The last remaining population of Encephalartos hirsutus, near the Zimbabwe border, is patrolled daily by nature conservation officers of the Limpopo province. A novel line of defense for trophy plants is to implant microchips deep inside their caudexes. Each of these invisible tags has a number, identifying the plant's original position in the wild. With an electronic scanner, officials can prove that a cycad was definitely stolen from the wild. Already, this technology has led to convictions in South Africa.

Modest fines have been the rule for guilty poachers, however. "It's hard to gin up sympathy with prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies for plants compared to panda bears," notes Mayer. As if to prove him right, the defendants in Operation Botany recently walked away with minor fines in exchange for their guilty pleas: $25,000 for Heibloem, $5,000 for Bouwer and for California cycad dealer Donald Wiener, and $100 in court costs for Bauer and Van Vuuren. Other than the three months that some of the men spent in jails after arrest, not one of the offenders will serve time.

That may change, however. Both Australian and South African authorities may yet arrest their residents who were snared in Operation Botany. Bauer was previously sentenced to a five-year prison term, suspended on condition that he is not found dealing in illegal plants again. "Now we will get him," predicts van der Merwe, "and he will have to serve the suspended sentence."

Those trying to protect cycads thus far have made their stand largely out of the public eye, but they hope that even the quietest of actions will resonate. The last time McCloud saw Rolf Bauer was at the U.S. Marshall's Office in San Francisco. The friendly banter of meetings past, when McCloud posed as a cycad dealer named Marty Sterns, was gone. As McCloud approached Bauer with handcuffs, the agent saw a shudder of recognition in the eyes of the accused. But, says McCloud, "other than asking him to put his hands behind his back, we didn't speak."

Johannesburg-based writer and photographer Don Boroughs is working on a book about cycads and cycad fanatics.

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