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Our Conservation Work

BotSoc champions biodiversity conservation in South Africa to protect our indigenous plant diversity and ecosystems.

Protecting cycads through microdots

Cycads are considered to be the most threatened plant taxa in the world. South Africa is no exception to that – with our cycads severely impacted by many threats, from poaching to disease. In fact, 78% of South Africa’s Encephalartos species are threatened with extinction. That’s higher than the global average, of 62%. 

As a result, many species are now teetering on the brink of extinction, with less than 10% of their original populations remaining. South Africa has the dubious distinction of already being home to three of the four species that have become extinct in the wild. Two of these species became extinct very recently – between 2003 and 2010.

According to Zwelakhe Zondi of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), in order to address this threat, the Cycad Biodiversity Management Plan was developed in 2017. This plan looks at potential solutions – including the use of microdots. This is also where the Botanical Society of South Africa has made our mark – by boosting the cycads’ chances of survival through microdots.

What are microdots?

Microdots are a popular solution in the security sector. These tiny discs contain unique information, that play a key role in the recovery and return of stolen goods. Zwelakhe says, “They have a unique laser-etched code on them that can be stored on a national and international verification database.” This is then linked to the localities of cycad populations. 

These microdots prove instrumental when confiscated cycads are used as evidence in court cases, where it is essential to ensure each item is properly handled through an unbroken chain.

Priority cycad populations

Right now, the project is focusing on five priority cycad populations – including Critically Endangered and Endangered species. They’ve been used in four provinces across the country.

One of the priority species is the Eastern Cape blue cycad (Encephalartos horridus), which is currently being heavily poached. This Endangered species has especially been targeted over the past decade, with new cases still cropping up all the time. Already 550 stems have been microdotted.

Another species, Encephalartos eugene-maraisii has also lost around 50% of its population in recent times. This Endangered species is also included in the micro-dotting project.

Zwelakhe says the team cleans the stems of each cycad, with microdots then sprayed onto the stem through an aerosol can. The microdots soon blend into the stem. And the team regularly checks populations to ensure that the microdots withstand the elements.

Get involved

The cycad and succulent poaching crisis is leading to more and more extinctions, and that’s why BotSoc is at the forefront of addressing this challenge. Right now our need is to obtain additional skilled capacity to curate conservation-grade collections to support collections and ecological restoration efforts. We also require material, equipment and infrastructure to maintain collections. You can help – find out how.


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