Often we concentrate so much on what we have lost, that we don't notice the things we are about to lose, the findings on the other bracelets coming undone as we vainly poke around in the dark, chasing shadows in the plumbing. A small amount of organisms have indeed come back from the dead, as it were. These so-called Lazarus species, such as the painted frog and the Madagascar serpent-eagle, were reported as extinct for several years, until small populations are rediscovered. These are rare occurences, and dangerous ones for ecology in the end; they give us hope, which is so seldom of any practical use.
What a pitiful, sorrowful thing the very last wild thylacine must have been. All alone, without a mate. A population of top-end predators reduced to a single individual. The last thylacine would not even have been aware of it, of course, but it was doomed long ago. As soon as the number of individuals in a population drops below a certain threshold, the whole species collapses. Even though there are still individuals alive, the genetic diversity needed to sustain their next generation is already lost. You cannot fight natural selection with just a handful of alleles - you need the full arsenal. Imagine that last thylacine, gazing out over its dry scrubland habitat. A dead species walking. Functionally extinct.
The wonderful seaside city of Durban, South Africa, has an incredible botanic garden with a rich history. Planted in Victorian times, its mature tropical trees are a magnificent site to behold. On weekends, crowds of people enjoy a sunny afternoon picnic on its lawns. Its herbarium has collected and catalogued some of the most precious specimens of plants from all over the world and specifically the ravines and coastal forests of southern Africa. Music events, art installations and amateur astronomy nights bring people from all walks of life, not just plant lovers. Chiefly, it is indeed a plant lover's paradise: a whole avenue of Eucalyptus deglupta, the famous rainbow gum, leads to a carefully maintained Japanese garden. Tropical fruit trees grow outside, festooned with bromeliads and orchids, without the need of pampering under glass: jackfruit, cocoa, coffee, mangoes, they're all here. Ponds of waterlilies, formal rose gardens and arches dripping with purple Wisteria provide bridal couples and their photographers with many opportunities for gorgeous scenery. A Victorian orchid house gushes with colourful, heady blooms, a firm favourite with any visitor. And in the middle of it all stands a lonely looking Wood's cycad, Encephalartos woodii.
I've never been a big fan of cycads. They're big and spikey, grow exceedingly slowly, and produce no flowers. Still, the madness of cycad collectors probably exceeds that of the orchid folk. No other kind of rare plant has been as vehemently collected, illegally smuggled or heavily policed. In 1895, John Medley Wood came across a large cycad with four stems at the edge of the coastal forest of Ngoye in eastern South Africa. Luckily for the cycad, John had been curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens since 1882. In 1903, Wood sent James Wiley to collect some of the offsets growing at the base of the plant. In 1907, two of the larger trunks were collected and planted at the Botanic Gardens in Durban. However, Wood wasn't the only person interested in this cycad, apparently. By 1912, there was only a single trunk left. It is known that the indigenous people of the area sometimes use the starchy trunks as a food source, but it is doubtful that they were to blame. The plant seemed mutilated, diseased. In 1916, The Forestry Department sent this ailing trunk to the Government botanist in Pretoria. It died in 1964. All expeditions to find other specimens of Wood's cycad have returned empty-handed. It is very likely that the original plant collected one hundred years ago was the last of its kind.
Fortunately, the specimens growing in the Durban Botanic Garden thrived. Unfortunately, you need a mommy and a daddy cycad to make a baby cycad. The single specimen on the planet was a male, you see, and without a female Encephalartos woodii, no viable seed can ever be made. And yet, there are about 500 individual plants in the world now, in botanic gardens such as Kew and Kirstenbosch, and in private collections. How was this miracle accomplished? The plant regularly produces offsets at its base - all male, all genetically identical. Clones, with about as much chance of surviving in the wild as the original plant did. Functionally extinct. There has been much research and debate about using biotechnology to save Wood's cycad. It might be possible to induce one of the clones to change sex and become a female, whether chemically or using a genetic engineering approach. But even if this feat of gender reassignment surgery were possible, the genetic pool is still severely limited. Encephalartos woodii will remain in cultivation, of that there is no doubt. But genetically crippled, it could never survive in the wild.
The photograph above is of me hugging the trunk of the gigantic original cycad, first collected in 1907, still growing happily in the Durban Botanic Garden. A palaeontological relic, its chromosomes at a loss for something to do. A proud plant, but doomed like the thylacine. Its salvation through cultivation is a hollow victory. Lazarus was raised from the dead, only to die a second death. I recalled a lecture in population genetics, where the secrets of the gene were shared with me in darkened halls: "The only thing worse than somatic death, the death of the body, is genetic death, the failure to reproduce". I closed my eyes and grasped the trunk, cool and solid beneath my fingers.