If it were easy it wouldn’t be an expedition. A team of 18 people, 3 horses and 3 dogs embarked on a mission to distant caves in the Maya Mountains in Southern Belize. The treasure they were looking for was the rare Sinkhole Cycad (Zamia prasina) – a unique plant species that only occurs in the bottom of sinkholes and on hilltops.
Unfortunately, the rarity of the Sinkhole Cycad has attracted the attention of collectors who are prepared to pay a high price for them. As a result, wild cycad populations are being overexploited for the nursery trade making it a critically endangered species.
SOS – Save Our Species supports the Montgomery Botanical Centre (MBC) that led the Sinkhole Cycad expedition. Through a SOS funded project, MBC's conservation team brings wild cycad seeds to three botanical gardens to learn how to propagate them. The team is also planning to distribute 1,000 garden seeds of this rare plant into the nursery industry to protect the wild populations.
While 1,000 seeds might not sound like much, they are an ambitious target for the project. "For cycads, every individual seed makes a difference. These are collector's plants which command a high price, even for a single seed. This is due to the rarity, the low number of seed produced each year, and the challenging germination," explained Patrick Griffith, the MBC’s Executive Director. The aim is to make it easier to procure Sinkhole Cycads from nurseries than collecting them from the wild, giving wild populations a chance to survive. The 1,000 seeds would go a long way in achieving this.
The expedition lasted from 16 to 28 February 2014 and the team was led by Patrick Griffith and cycad biologist Michael Calonje. Also on the team were botany, horticulture and wildlife experts from Belize Botanic Gardens, Teakettle Enterprises, and the Ya’axche Conservation Trust, in addition to local and national support personnel. The same geographic circumstances that make this cycad ideal for research and conservation – remote caves in the mountain forest – demanded careful logistics and planning.
The study sites were a full day’s walk beyond roads, quite close to the Guatemalan border. Three nights of bivouacking with food, camp gear and botanical tools required a pack train of three horses. In addition, the increased presence of xateros (palm poachers) in the area made security planning necessary. These xateros illegally cross into Belize from neighbouring Guatemala to collect the leaves of the Chamaedorea palm species that are widely used in the floral industry.
In the end, the expedition team was rewarded for confronting the hardship and danger. A third major population of the Sinkhole Cycad in yet another remote site was discovered and documented. This new population will have a significant impact on the conservation of the species. "Discovering a completely new population of this cycad is a great step forward for conserving the species! This could mean a greater pool of genetic diversity exists in the wild - but certainly the number of known surviving plants can be moved upward," said Patrick Griffith.
Thanks to the collaboration between SOS and MBC, the Sinkhole Cycad has a greater chance of becoming a model of successful ex-situ conservation.