What is a Cycad?

Cycads are an ancient group of seed plants dating back 280 million years. They have trunks, leaves, and cones but never flowers. They are often confused with palms and tree ferns. While not as common today, they were during the Jurassic period, which is often referred to as the “Age of Cycads”.

Cycads date back to the time of the dinosaurs. They are the most ancient seed plants remaining and have survived three mass extinctions in Earth’s history…until now. The actions of modern humans have caused a cycad extinction crisis in South Africa.

Threats to Cycads in South Africa

South Africa is a hotspot for cycad diversity, with 38 indigenous species (over 10% of the world’s cycads). Thirty seven of these species belong to the genus Encephalartos of which more than 70% face extinction. Illegal harvesting from the wild is the most significant threat to indigenous cycad species and is driven by the local and international demand for plants to use in private gardens and collections.

Cycads and the law

According to national environmental legislation, the trade in Encephalartos cycads taken out of the wild is prohibited. The following national laws regulate biodiversity and provide protection for various species, including cycads:

  • National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 (NEMBA), read with
    • Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations, 2007,
    • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Regulations 2010. CITES applies when listed species are subject to import or export-related activities, and this includes specimens, parts and derivatives of all cycad species.
  • National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act 57 of 2003 (NEMPAA) protects all biodiversity in protected areas.

Each province also has conservation laws to further protect and regulate cycad trade.


Obtaining cycads legally

There are legal methods of obtaining and keeping artificially propagated cycads. If you are in possession of an indigenous Encephalartos cycad, or if you want to purchase one, you need to obtain a permit. This will help to protect these threatened species from illegal trade. If you are in possession of an exotic cycad, you may not need a permit. To find out what the requirements are for your area, or if you have any other queries, please refer to the relevant contact details below.

How to identify a cycad

South Africa is home to numerous Encephalartos species, each with its own distinct features. Encephalartos Cycads are often confused with palms and tree ferns and can be difficult to identify. Here’s how to check if you have an Encephalartos cycad in your garden. If you are still unsure or have any other queries, please refer to the relevant contact details below.

When identifying Encephalartos cycad species in South Africa, the following key features are commonly considered:

The trunk

Encephalartos Cycads have cylindrical trunks that do not usually branch. The trunk may be buried with the leaves appearing to be emerging from the ground.

Encarphalatos Cycad trunk is cylindrical

Encephalartos trunks have spirals of relatively smooth diamond-shaped leaf scars


Encephalartos leaves grow directly from the trunk in a whorled formation, and typically fall as they get older, leaving a crown of newer leaves at the top. Leaves have leaflets arranged on either side of the stem.

Encephalartos leaflets have sunken, parallel veins and no mid vein. If there is a mid vein, it is not an Encephalartos species.  Leaflets are hard and prickly and don’t bend easily. They may be green, blue-green, or grey.

Plant reproduction

If the plants are in reproductive condition, there is no possibility of confusing them with palms because cycads bear large, conspicuous cones but no flowers, whereas palms bear small inconspicuous flowers.



National Hotline

Report cycad theft to the National Environmental Crimes and Incidents Hotline

0800 205 005


The Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment

General enquiries:
086 111 2468
Switch board:
012 399 9000

Tel: 012 399 8818

The EWT Wildlife in Trade Programme


Eastern Cape: 045 808 4000
Free State: 051 404 9600
Gauteng: 011 240 3184
KwaZulu-Natal: 033 845 1654
Limpopo: 015 297 3839
Mpumalanga: 013 065 0627
Northern Cape: 087 630 0387
North West: 018 389 5093
Western Cape: 021 483 0121