TOP rung detective work by an Eastern Cape special investigations’ unit has smashed a cycad smuggling ring and has already led to a prison sentence and hefty fines for four of the thieves. Ten people have already been arrested, and more are pending, with the unit successfully tracking the passage of the stolen cycads through the different levels of the syndicate.
Established by department of economic development and environmental affairs MEC Mcebisi Jonas, the unit is part of the provincial Green Scorpions corps, under the jurisdiction of Jonas’ department.
Jonas said he was delighted with good news of the investigation.
"The success of it proves the importance of restoring the integrity of our environment, which contributes towards securing the future of many generations to come.”
The work of the investigation unit is part of the department’s broader efforts to get rural communities to understand the importance of cycads, he said.
"The Green Scorpions and the.... unit continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring compliance with the law,” he said.
South Africa is a global hotspot for cycads an ancient, highly threatened seed plant family with distinctive spiny leaves – and the Eastern Cape has more species than anywhere else in the country. Possession of cycads or trading in these rare plants is illegal unless a special permit is obtained.
The latest news, released by Green Scorpions’ provincial director Div de Villiers, is that three Uitenhage suspects have appeared in court. They appeared Friday (September 7 2012) and their case was remanded to September 27.
Marta Martin, Simon Dondolo and Malibongwe Ndwayana are accused of uprooting and selling cycads to Frederick Smal – who is already serving a prison sentence. It’s a significant sentence, De Villiers said.
"It sends out a strong message to people dealing illegally in cycads that it is a serious offence that can result in lengthy prison sentences, without the option of a fine.
"A first offence can mean a R5-million fine or a five year prison sentence, or both.”
The investigation started with the arrest in September last year of Loyiso Booi and Fezele Mafuya, De Villiers explained.
The pair were caught in the Kei Bridge area in possession of 35 cycads, valued at approximately R150000. All these cycads were Encephalartus princeps, classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as "vulnerable”. This means "with a high risk of extinction in the wild”.
Booi and Mafuya were charged and convicted and each sentenced to a R3000 fine or three months’ imprisonment, suspended for five years.
In the meanwhile, however, the probe unit, under Etienne Kitching, had tracked down the middle tier of this syndicate which the two accused were supplying.
In this bust, in Queenstown in January, three suspects were arrested in possession of 43 cycads, with a combined value of R200000.
The three men, all from Gauteng, were all convicted. Lenathi Khumalo and Daniel Mboza were each sentenced in May to R12000 or three years’ imprisonment, suspended for 5 years.
But the cosh fell hardest on the main middle-man – Frederick Smal. His bakkie and trailer were forfeited to the state, and he was sentenced also in May, to six years imprisonment, of which three years were suspended for five years.
The cycads found in the Queenstown swoop originated from Uitenhage and Nqamakwe, north of Kei Cuttings, De Villiers said.
So, after following leads, the team then swooped on the suspected Nqamakwe link, Michael Ntsinqa. He was arrested with 13 E princeps, valued at R150000, in his possession. His case is currently pending in the Nqamakwe court.
In a further twist, it has been confirmed that some of the 31 E. horridus cycads seized in the Queenstown swoop – which were sourced in Uitenhage and which led to the arrest of Martin, Dondolo and Ndwayana – were stolen from Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality’s Springs Nature Reserve.
In November 2010, the late Wesley Berrington, senior Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality conservation officer, reported the theft of 10 endemic E. horridus. The thieves apparently used secateurs to hack off the dangerously thorny leaves, and then carried the heavy plants half a kilometre to their bakkie.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says cycads are the most threatened group of plant species on Earth.
"There are 308 cycad species globally and 62% of those species are now threatened with extinction,”, the organisation’s last report said.
The SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) notes that South Africa is one of the global hotspots of cycad diversity, with 39 species.
It is also one of the hotspots for threatened cycads: 68% of our cycads are threatened with extinction compared to the global average of 62%. And 31% from SA are classified as critically endangered, compared to the global average of 17%.
South Africa also has three of the four species classified as extinct in the wild. Two of these became extinct in the wild in the period between 2003 and 2010.
And South Africa has seven cycad species that have fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild. Sanbi has warned that we risk losing these cycads within the next 10 years unless effective measures are put in place to stop their flow from wild populations to private gardens.
On the Eastern Cape investigation, De Villiers said the unit is continuing to follow more leads – and further arrests are expected.