Cycads are unique nitrogen fixing plants. There are other plants that fix nitrogen but none that do it with cyanobacteria and this makes them unique as its one of the earliest partnerships between a plant and another organism. Cycad plants host nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria within specialized roots. The tiny microbes living in these roots willingly share the newly acquired nitrogen with their hosts as their contribution to a symbiosis that benefits both organisms. In soils nearby the cycad plants, nitrogen and carbon increased to concentrations that exceeded those of soils that were distant from the plants and so benefits the crops around them.
The Mpanga Falls cycad is one of the most threatened species in the world and is under serious threat from farmers and illegal plant traders. The IUCN classified the Mpanga Falls cycad as ‘critically endangered’ meaning it is under serious threat of becoming extinct. The cycad is protected, in theory, by the CITES convention (Convention on the Illegal Trade of Endangered Species) but in Uganda this authority rarely does anything to enforce the protection of this species. As such many people pay to have them stolen from their natural habitat and placed in their hotels or gardens. The Mpanga Falls cycad should be something that Ugandan’s are proud to protect, the same as the chimpanzees and gorillas, not being stolen and sold illegally on the side of the road.
We work with farmers in the in area who are facing extreme shortages of firewood and promote agroforestry practices whilst also engaging them in conservation approaches for the cycad. KFF and its staff have been involved in projects aiming at improving water infrastructure to reduce the number of cattle encroaching on the habitat with great success following the installation of a ram pump. Now we focus on reforesting extremely steep slopes that have recently been cleared and are at risk of collapse. Site specific species selection enables us to ensure high survival rates and this is crucial in this fire prone environment. Research is also underway to determine the true pollination mechanism of this prehistoric plant as many aspects of its biology still remain a mystery.
Firstly, DO NOT BUY THESE PLANTS when you see them for sale at the side of the road. It is against the law to buy or sell the Mpanga Falls cycad and any that you see in people’s gardens or in hotels have been stolen from the Mpanga Gorge. Sadly, the plant grows very slowly which means its cultivation in nurseries takes many, many years and people are not willing to wait that long and so they instead pay someone to steal one from their natural habitat.
If you see one of these plants in a hotel or in someone’s garden, encourage them to think about returning it to the wild where it belongs or ask them to contact us and we can help arrange for it to be re-planted back in the Mpanga Gorge. And if all else fails, contact the local CITES representative here about what you have seen.