Tracking down the dark world of cycad theft in new Tony Park thriller

International author Tony Park and wife Nicola usually divide their time between Sydney and southern Africa where Tony finds inspiration for many of his books.

His latest novel, Last Survivor (his 18th), is a fascinating story focused on the robust real-life illegal trade in cycads, an ancient plant family.

“I was travelling around southern Africa, visiting a friend who lives in Zimbabwe and is a mad keen gardener,” Tony tells Have a Go News from Sydney.

“She and her husband had to move house after being kicked off their farm as part of the farm invasions over there. Along with all their bits and pieces, she managed to relocate all these plants, dozens of them.

“I asked my friend why she had moved so many and she said they were worth a fortune. An honest person, she explained that cycads are incredibly collectable and popular and some unscrupulous collectors who will pay anything for them.

“She explained that these plants being native to parts of southern Africa; are stolen from the bush and sold off as though they have been cultivated. Collectors will pay up to $100,000 (US) for an individual plant. The rarer the plant the fewer are left in the wild and the more they are worth.

“It is poaching not by poor African people or people from Asia but by someone who could be your neighbour. These plants are popular in Australia and grow well in temperate climates including America. I was told about an international undercover operation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service where an investigator went undercover for two years posing as a buyer and brought down an international cycad smuggling racket.”

Tony managed to track down the investigator, Ken McCloud, who helped with some of the book research, along with plant experts in America, Zimbabwe and South Africa, who Tony describes as people passionate about plants. 

“The common thread is stealing cycads. It is a very serious crime but it doesn’t get much coverage like poaching rhinos or elephants. Plants are as important a part of the ecosystem as anything else. 

“The idea for the book had been bubbling away in my mind for about eight years but I really started writing in earnest a few years ago. I do a book every year and am writing another at present.”

Tony Park was born in 1964 and grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs.

His extensive career has seen him work as a newspaper reporter, public relations consultant, freelance writer and a government press secretary.

He served 34 years in the Australian Army reserve including six months in Afghanistan in 2002 as a public affairs officer.

Most of Tony Park’s novels are based in Africa which he first visited in 1995.

He is also the co-author of several non-fiction books including recently updated War Dogs with Shane Bryant and The Grey Man with John Curtis.

Africa is the country to which Tony returns for writing inspiration, being there in January.

“Writing is my passion, it’s all I ever wanted to do and I consider myself very fortunate.”

“Events this year have made it difficult but I don’t want to cry too much. We have a beautiful four-bedroom home in the bush in South Africa we won’t see for some time.

“One thing I have realised is that I get inspiration and ideas for my books by being in the place and, as I’m not there now, it is difficult. I am talking to friends in South Africa, asking them how things are going and about issues because my current book will be set during the COVID period.

“COVID is presenting its own challenges in South Africa with an increase in poaching. Tourists and safari operators act as a deterrent to poachers just by their presence. Now with nobody in the wild, poachers feel they can slip in and have free rein; people don’t realise how important tourism is for the country.”

Tony and Nicola’s love of Africa is reflected in their luxury safari property, Nantwich Lodge in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe which they bought with friends.  

“One of the things we support is an anti-poaching patrol to protect wildlife, this is  funded by a levy per night when tourists stay. Now there are no tourists there is no funding for food and equipment so we have raised money simply to buy boots for rangers.”

Tony is also patron of Painted Dog Conservation Inc, a charity focused on the survival of the most endangered carnivore in Africa, the Painted Dog.

“I would normally be doing book talks but things have to be done differently today,” he said.

“I enjoy being in Australia but I am keen to return to South Africa. We have many friends in tourism there who are suffering so much.”

Last Survivor Tony Park

Last Survivor (Pan MacMillan Australia), retails for $35 and is available from good book shops.

People wanting to purchase a personally signed copy of Last Survivor or War Dogs can email for payment options.

$10 from each book will be donated to Painted Dog Conservation Inc.