Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)

6 June 2002

South Africa: A New Breed of Cycad Collectors

When illegal collectors began stripping the Mananga Mountain of its indigenous cycads and lilies, the Mpumalanga Parks Board decided to step in and stop the depletion of these critically endangered plants.

Two plants in particular seemed popular with collectors ­ the Lebombo Cycad (Encephalartos lebomboensis) and the Swazi Lily (Adenium swazicum). Both plant species are endemic to the Mananga Mountain range in the south-eastern corner of Mpumalanga, bordering Mozambique and Swaziland.

"We realised we would have to include the local community in our plans to conserve the rare plants," says Tommie Steyn, head of the Plant and Conservation Propagation Unit ­ Wildlife Services, Mpumalanga Parks Board.

"They knew they could make money from illegal collectors so we needed to motivate them to work with us, but still give them the opportunity to earn something from it."

With funding from the Development Bank of South Africa, the Mlambo Cycad Nursery Project was established and four members of the community selected to work in it.

"We taught them to propagate plants from seeds harvested from wild populations, as well as nursery hygiene, maintenance, development and management," says Steyn.

"Once the community members developed those skills, we taught them financial management and marketing techniques so they could market the plants."

"We needed the locals to take ownership of the resource," says Steyn.

"By propagating and making seedlings available to the public and the community, they derive an income from their efforts and, at the same time, prevent the extinction of the species."

Seeds were originally harvested from plants growing on the mountain and have been propagated for the past four years. From each batch, new seedlings are kept aside to be replanted in depleted areas in the wild.

Steyn and the Mpumalanga Parks Board knew that if the project was to succeed in the long term, an intensive education programme was required. Schools in the area were included in a broad awareness campaign where children were taught why they need to protect these rare plants. Cultivation blocks were set up at the schools and the youngsters are encouraged to grow and care for the plants. An annual donation of plants is made to the schools and the Parks Board plans to buy back seeds once the plants have matured.

The youngsters were encouraged to collect tins for the Spirit of Africa marketing initiative, where cycad seedlings are planted in the brightly painted tins and offered for sale to the public.

"Now, for the first time, the public can legally obtain cycads when they buy them from our nursery," says Steyn.

The nursery currently trades with other nurseries and the Kruger National Park recently ordered 1000 cycad seedlings, hoping to make this an annual purchase.

"The project has created an awareness about the endangered plants," says Steyn. " The local community has elected a representative who serves as chairman of the nursery management committee, and the project has proved to be financially self-sustainable with the potential to improve its financial capacity by exploring new markets." ­ Southside Media

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