Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trees of the Jurassic age

Few months ago, I saw an excellent and informative animation film made by BBC, titled as 'Walking with Dinosaurs. I was particularly amazed to watch the animation in this film. The film shows these giants of the Jurassic age, that were annihilated some 65 Million years ago, in their natural habitat with abundant flora all around. While watching this film, a thought struck my mind that because of the fossil prints left behind by these giants, we have a fairly accurate idea about the various species and subspecies of this dinosaurs family. However, we have no idea about the trees and other green foliage that grew around these animals. I did little bit of research about this and found a very interesting thing that we already know a lot many details about these Jurassic age trees because many of them still exist on the surface of the earth even today. 

These Jurassic age trees are well known as Cycads and are still around at a few places on surface of the earth. During Jurrasic age, these trees were spread over continents in ample abundance. These trees bear bruits and reproduce from seeds found in the fruits. Cycads are now found only in few countries along the equator with tropical climate. Many botanical gardens all over the world and many big universities also have been instrumental in growing and in preservation of Cycads.

Because Cycads are so rare, the current market prices are in the range of 10000 US$ for them. Similar to what has happened to the Sandalwood trees found in India, these trees also have become easy targets for crooks and criminals from the countries where these are found. In South Africa, there is a huge Botanical garden in Durban city known as 'Durban Botanical gardens.' This garden had a proud possession of a large variety of Cycads of various species and sub species numbering well above 150. About an year back thieves stole around 20 rarest Cycad trees from this garden valued over 65000 US$. What is surprising is the fact that thieves knew exactly which trees to steal, indicating hand of a botanist or an expert specialized in Cycads. In South Africa it is not possible to grow Cycads in your houses or gardens without a Government permit. South African police think that because of this, this heist must be the job of some international gang.

Since these trees are rather rare, these can be recognized or identified only by an expert botanist. This fact makes the smuggling of these trees rather easy. Smugglers usually denude the tree and then hide the trees in their baggage. Any kind of trading activity in Cycads remains totally banned all over the world according to an international treaty under 'Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).' Main difficulty in stopping illegal trade in Cycads is the problem of correct recognition of this tree by the police organizations from all over the world.

Botany department of the University of Johannesburg has now undertaken a new project of DNA Bar coding for Cycads. Under this project, each and every individual sub specie and specie of Cycads is being given a specific Bar code. A data base consisting of all such bar codes is being prepared. By using this data base, any Cycad tree can be recognized by checking its DNA. However the instruments that can check the DNA require plenty of time for this check and also are prohibitively expensive. What is needed is a simple instrument that can read the DNA easily and cheaply and can display the Bar code for that DNA. Only this could prevent the smuggling of Cycads to some extent.

The Cycad trees in Durban were at least 75 years old and these trees grow very slowly. To achieve full growth, a Cycad requires 800 to 1000 years span. This is the exact reason why Cycads happens to be out only links with the past. All nations on earth need to preserve and care for Cycads for this very reason.

Cycads have been very tough, having survived the vagaries of nature for Millions of years. The real problem now is whether they can stand against the human greed?

1 November 2013

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