Cycads are the oldest living species of seed plants in the world. They date back 340 million years and have survived three mass extinctions. There are 347 species of cycad left today and while many thrive in areas that are free from development, cycads are one of the most threatened families of plant in the world.
The Albany cycad is one of the rarest species of cycad and is native to South Africa’s Eastern Cape, found at altitudes between 200-600 metres. Its stems grow up to three metres high and its leaves are a glossy, dark green and are very broad compared to other cycads, making it one of the most attractive species.
E. latifrons is listed as critically endangered as it is estimated that fewer than 100 mature individuals are alive in the wild, the result of a 80 percent decline in its population over the past 100 years. The plants that do exist in the wild are often more than 1km apart, making reproduction impossible without hand pollination by humans.
Due to their attractiveness and value to plant collectors, the biggest threat to the Albany cycad is criminal poaching. The species is now protected under CITES, which prohibits its trade, and is housed in several botanic garden collections but controlling the theft of Albany cycad continues to be a challenge for conservationists.
In August 2014, 24 cycads worth an estimated £40,000 were stolen from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town; 22 of those were Albany cycads, some of which had been housed there since 1913. The garden has now implemented microdot technology, so that the source of stolen plants can be identified, in one last attempt to save what remains of the Albany cycad.