South Africa is a hotspot for cycad diversity with 38 indigenous species (over 10% of the world’s cycads). Thirty-seven species belong to the genus Encephalartos of which more than 70% face extinction. Illegal harvesting from the wild, driven by the local and international demand for cycads to use in private gardens and collections, is the biggest threat to the Encephalartos species. Sadly, four of these are classified as extinct in the wild due to poaching. Thus, the legal sale of Encephalartos cycads is regulated nationally and internationally.

Cycads and the law

According to the national environmental legislation, the trade in cycads taken out of the wild is prohibited. The following national laws regulate biodiversity and protect 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. CITE applies when listed species are subject to import or export-related activities, including specimens, parts and derivatives of all cycad species.
  • National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act 57 of 2003 (NEMBA) protects all biodiversity in protected areas.

Each province has conservation legislation that also protects cycads and regulates activities that harm them. It is crucial to comply with these regulations to avoid penalties and help to conserve these prehistoric plants in peril.

However, there are legal methods of obtaining and keeping artificially propagated cycads. If you own an indigenous cycad or purchase a cycad, you need to obtain a permit. This will help to protect these threatened species from illegal trade. If you own an exotic cycad, you may not need a permit. Cycads are often confused with palms and tree ferns, and indigenous cycads are difficult to differentiate from exotic cycads. Here’s how to check if you have an Encephalartos cycad in your garden. If you are unsure or have any other queries, please refer to the contact details below.

Identifying Encephalartos Cycads


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. 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.


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.

Contact details:

Report cycad theft to the National Environmental Crimes and Incidents Hotline: 0800 205 005

To find out the requirements for your area, or if you have any other queries, please visit the EWT’s cycad page or contact the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife in Trade Programme at witinfo@ewt.org.za

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment

General enquiries: 086 111 2468

Switch board: 012 399 9000

DFFE- TOPS  & CITES Permits: 012 399 8818

The Endangered Wildlife Trust – www.ewt.org.za

The Gardener