The unlikely consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a surge of interest in gardening, especially in peculiar ornamental plants. Once getting attention only from small circles of enthusiasts, certain species have now become a global trend on social media. From leafy tropicals like variegated monstera, dracaena, maranta, and zamia, to a wide variety of succulents, dozens of these stunning plants decorate the most instagramable gardens and indoor spaces. However, some of those beauties you see in the photos may not come from an accredited nursery and are in fact rare and endangered wild plants that have been poached.
Not all plant poachers are intentional. Some of them are people who stumble onto an interesting plant on a hike and decide to take it home, without thinking or knowing whether the species is endangered. However, there is a small but significant portion of individuals who know very well the value of the rarities and actively “hunt” them. These poachers collect the plants for personal satisfaction or, far more common, for profit. Although the intentional poachers are far more dangerous, regardless of the motive no one should collect endangered plants from their natural habitats. Plant poaching is an illegal and highly damaging practice that can severely deplete the abundance of species within an ecosystem, making it even more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.
Is plant poaching common?
The alluring beauty and significant monetary value of some plant species made illegal plant poaching ubiquitous in many parts of the world. Plants are easy to collect and traffic under the radar, and there is an increasing number of customers interested in rare beauties. Another problem is that plant poaching doesn’t have the same emotional weight as animal poaching. The number of organizations and activists dedicated to wild plant protection is quite humble compared to the number of animal protection advocates. Plants cannot show emotion or interact with us the way animals do, so it’s challenging to understand their suffering in the same way. Legal approaches to plant poaching also reflect this bias, as the sentences are lighter and culprits often get away with only a warning or a small fine.
In such circumstances, it is difficult to estimate how common poaching is exactly, but it is fair to assume that the number of reported cases doesn’t represent the true scope of this illegal activity. In today’s fragile ecosystems that are experiencing a decline in abundance and biodiversity, the results of poaching can be devastating. Areas under heavy plant poaching pressure can easily reach a point of collapse, especially if the plants in question are keystone species.
The most widely reported incidents of illegal plant poaching come from Southeast Asia, South Africa, Australia, and the USA, where this ill practice has been surging over the last 3 years. The social media houseplant craze and the economic instability fueled by COVID caused the rare plant black market to bloom. Such a turn of events created multiple problems for conservationists and people living in areas where poaching is common. Some of the rarities grow on private land, but that doesn’t stop the poachers from trespassing, deeming the prize greater than the risk.
Which plants get poached the most?
In order to avoid contributing to illegal poaching, we should always buy rare plants from a trusted, accredited nursery or a plant shop. Legally grown foreign plants often come with a “plant passport”, indicating their origin. If there is no such tag or the enterprise seems shady, it is best to inquire about the origin of plants, especially if rare species are in question. There are thousands of plant species threatened by poaching, and sadly, new ones are added to the list every year. For the purposes of this text, we will point out some of the most commonly poached species, most likely to end up in illegal possession.
The variety of shapes and colors, low maintenance, and grand aesthetic appeal made succulents some of the most favored houseplants in the world. Succulents are an incredibly diverse group of plants, with stonecrops (Crassulaceae) and cacti (Cactaceae) being the most popular and widespread. These plants inhabit dry and hot habitats, requiring little water and nutrients to thrive.
Living in such limited environments, many succulents are very slow growers. They often require decades to grow only a couple of inches, which makes them very vulnerable to the harmful effects of poaching. Also, often being the almost lone source of food and shelter, succulent patches are biodiversity hotspots in the harsh, arid habitats. Maintaining their wild populations is crucial for keeping these habitats healthy and diverse. Let’s look at some of the most heavily poached succulents, where they come from, and why people collect them.
A macro photograph of a tiny Conophytum khamiesbergense flowering. Photo: Martin Heigan.
Rare South African succulents are very popular among plant enthusiasts in East Asia, with hundreds of them visiting the dry, rocky expanses each year to poach the valued plants. With the help of social media, the trend left the Far East to spread all over the world. As a result, poaching started growing exponentially from March 2019 and got worse with the onset of the COVID epidemic. Due to lockdowns and reduced mobility, the succulent enthusiasts reached out to locals to do the poaching for them. Increasing financial insecurity in the already poor areas of South Africa, and the surging interest in rare succulents created a perfect combination for plant poaching to thrive. The black market for rare succulents expanded viciously and is decimating wild populations.
The unique shape, beautiful flowers, and substantial monetary value of Conophytum species make them one of the most common targets of plant poachers in South Africa. During the pandemic, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has been receiving thousands of plants confiscated by the police on a monthly basis. The amount of confiscated plant material surpasses SANBI’s capacity to provide adequate care. According to the reports from the field, SANBI experts estimate that the scope of poaching is so great that some Conophytum species have been probably poached to extinction. And it’s not only about Conophytum; many other rare South African succulents share the same destiny.
Bluff lettuce (Dudleya farinosa)
Dudleyas, commonly known as liveforevers, are stunning ashy green succulents native to southwestern North America. The genus Dudleya has 47 species and 21 subspecies, many of which are endangered and threatened by poaching. Bluff lettuce (Dudleya farinosa) is especially attractive to poachers due to its interesting coloring pattern. Its leaves become red-tinged as they grow older, creating an elegant contrast with the pale younger leaves. Like many other plants in the Dudleya genus, bluff lettuce hasn’t been studied extensively. Details about its life cycle and ecological importance are still unknown. The effects of poaching cannot be fully estimated because of this, but the current situation in the field shows that they are nothing short of devastating.
The scope of poaching activities in California was so grand that the state officials passed a law in 2021 that made collecting bluff lettuce illegal without an adequate permit. After several very serious poaching incidents, it was clear that this illegal activity is running rampant and that a higher level of legal protection is necessary. Poaching wild dudleyas can now lead to 6 months of jail time and up to half a million dollars in fines. There is hope that the wild bluff lettuce populations will replenish, as significant conservation efforts are being put to protect them and raise awareness of the general public about the little-known issue of plant poaching.
Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
The mighty saguaro, the universal symbol of the American west, is one of the largest cacti in the world and a keystone species in its habitat. Like many succulents, saguaro grows very slowly. It takes decades for it to grow several feet and almost a century to produce side arms. The rate of growth is dictated by precipitation – more rain leads to faster growth. Being a keystone species, the saguaro shapes the American southwestern desert ecosystems and supports many animal species. Its tall growth and side arms are nesting places for birds and its nutritious fruits are an important food source. Keystone species have a disproportionally large effect relative to their abundance in the natural environment, so reduction of their populations often has a disastrous outcome. By collecting wild saguaros, poachers take away decades and centuries of growth effort in one fell swoop, causing long-term damage and biodiversity loss.
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
Peyote is a spineless cactus native to southern Texas and Mexico. It is easily recognized for its low growth and fleshy blob shape and is best known for its psychoactive effects. Peyote contains mescaline, a very potent alkaloid that induces hallucinations similar to psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. The history of its use among Native American peoples is very long. Peyote plays a very important role in Native American traditions and ceremonies for more than 6 millennia. Although not listed as an endangered species, peyote’s distribution area is becoming increasingly limited due to habitat destruction and poaching. This is especially true for southern Texas, which is under tremendous poaching pressure.
The surge of psychedelic drug use in the last 60 years increased the demand for peyote, which led to increased poaching activities. Authorities have been blaming Natives and “hippies” as the biggest culprits for the decline of wild peyote populations. It is true that there have been cases of random trespassers collecting the plants. However, such individuals are only a small fraction of the total number of peyote poachers. Local and organized theft is far more common, as the locals have the knowledge of the landscape and where to find the valuable cacti. The illegal trade of wild peyote is a lucrative business that has been growing for decades. The plant is very easy to grow in nurseries, but the legal limitations prevent commercial cultivation, indirectly perpetuating poaching.
The belief that wild peyotes are more potent is partly driving the poaching activities, but the fact that these plants are classified as Schedule 1 controlled drugs and are as such illegal to cultivate in many states, has a far greater impact on wild populations. The members of the Native American Church are exempt from this law since peyote is so important in their traditions. However, many of them are reluctant to grow the plants due to the belief that cultivation violates their sanctity. Allowing more people to grow peyote legally can take off a substantial amount of pressure currently inflicted on wild populations. Significant decriminalization efforts have been made over the last 3 years in many US states, and conservationists are actively advocating for peyote cultivation to become legal. Hopefully, these efforts will yield success and allow wild peyote populations to replenish.
Florida’s rich flora is full of interesting species, with bromeliads and orchids attracting the most attention from plant enthusiasts and poachers. Bromeliads are a varied group of plants that include many ornamental species, with air plants (genus Tillandsia) being some of the most intriguing. As their name indicates, air plants do not require soil to grow. They can attach to and grow on almost any surface – rocks, branches, trunks, and various artificial structures. Air plants have special structures on their leaves called the trichomes, which help them absorb water and nutrients. Some species, have a great number of trichomes, giving the leaves a pale, frosty color. The color of the leaves ranges from light green to dark red, with some species having very attractive bright pink or orange leaf tips. The flower buds are typically bromeliad, usually pink with dark purple flowers.
Out of 16 native air plant species in Florida, 10 of them are marked as threatened or endangered. Habitat destruction and pests negatively affect wild air plant populations, but poaching also plays a critical role in their decline. A couple of decades ago, this terrible practice drew a Central American air plant species Tillandsia xerographica very close to extinction. Thankfully, sustained conservation efforts prevented the demise of this fascinating plant. Certainly, things are getting better regarding environmental awareness and protection, but poaching still threatens wild air plant communities. With so many species and varieties available in nurseries, this practice is completely unjustifiable.
Carnivorous plants are truly a marvel of evolution. Growing in boggy, nutritionally poor soils, these plants had evolved an alternative way of obtaining nutrients. Getting nitrogen is especially problematic in such soils, but there is enough nitrogen in the living flesh. Most carnivorous plants are insectivorous – they eat insects, but some species can take on bigger prey, like frogs and rodents. There are more than 800 species of carnivorous plants around the world and new ones are discovered every year. Some of the most famous ones include the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), pitcher plants (Nepenthes), and sundews (Drosera). About a quarter of carnivorous plant species are under threat of extinction. Their decline has a lot to do with climate change, but for some species, poaching is the primary threat. Being so fascinating and other-worldly, carnivorous attract a lot of attention from plant enthusiasts and poachers alike.
Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
Venus flytrap is endemic to North Carolina, inhabiting wet longleaf pine savannas in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. It is protected by law since 1956 and was declared the official carnivorous plant of North Carolina in 2005. Its low-growing bristled traps are truly an attraction and their dark red color beautifully contrasts with the green. The flower is white, simple, and elegant, with a very long stalk to prevent the plant from eating its pollinator. Although it has a reputation for being difficult to grow, the Venus flytrap doesn’t lack fans and is highly popular among growers and plant enthusiasts.
Sadly, despite being state-protected and widely available in nurseries, Venus flytraps have been under heavy poaching pressure for decades. Aside from stealing them because of their decorative value, poachers also sell them to herbal extract manufacturers. Venus flytraps have a number of very interesting secondary metabolites with antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer qualities. Their therapeutic properties have already been implied in traditional medicine, but their full scope is still being investigated. Nevertheless, the value of these peculiar plants keeps increasing and the protection laws and their enforcement remain too lax. As a result, the flytrap black market keeps on growing and becoming more vicious.
Due to the increasing poaching pressure, North Carolina declared Venus flytrap poaching a felony in 2014. Less than two years after that, one individual was caught poaching almost 3% of the entire wild population. He was persecuted and sentenced to only a few months in prison. Such light penalties are not likely to put an end to flytrap poaching and plant poaching in general. Especially considering the chances of getting caught and persecuted are low. Needless to say, North Carolina is far from being the only state with this problem. The same narrative applies in most of the US, as well as globally.
With their peculiar adaptations and complex ecology, pitcher plants are probably some of the most fascinating organisms on our planet. Their name comes from the looks of their modified leaves, shaped like water pitchers, that serve as pitfall traps for unsuspecting animals. The “pitcher” contains a liquid with digestive enzymes that slowly kill and process the animal unfortunate enough to fall into the trap. The size of the trap says a lot about the type of prey the specific species feeds on. Smaller species are usually insectivorous, while larger ones catch frogs and small mammals. The world’s largest carnivorous plant, Nepenthes attenboroughii, is big enough to eat a fully grown rat!
There are more than 200 species of pitcher plants. The majority of them belong to two families – Nepenthaceae (Old World pitcher plants) and Sarraceniaceae (New World pitcher plants). The genus Nepenthes is the most abundant and diverse, including some of the most popular, and consequently most heavily poached species. The rare plant trade is very strong in Southeast Asia, the homeland of Nepenthes, and many other incredible plants. Both its legal and illegal sides are in bloom, and they sometimes intentionally or unintentionally work together, making it challenging to distinguish legit businesses from poachers. The situation is not much better in the US, where the poachers threaten native Sarraceniaceae and other pitcher plant species. Similar to Venus flytraps, some Sarracenia species have therapeutic properties due to their chemical content, so the poachers have dual benefits from stealing them.
How bad can it get?
Plant poaching may seem like a nuisance to some, but its effects can be far-reaching and cause long-term damage. The demand for rare plants keeps increasing, and so does the number of poachers. The combination of lax legislation and high demand attracts many individuals seeking to earn a quick buck, steepening the decline of already threatened wild plants and animals that depend on them. The abundance and richness of Earth’s natural ecosystems are already plunging because of climate change, and additional pressure from poaching only exacerbates the issue.
By losing these ecosystems we are not just robbing the planet of its natural beauty, but we’re also threatening global food security. Removing a single plant species from its natural habitat can cause a chain reaction with very destructive results, and poachers are removing numerous species at once. Additionally, since many of the species targeted by poachers are rare and sparsely studied, we are not fully familiar with their ecology. As an outcome, we cannot estimate the full scope of the effects of their population drops and extinctions.
Putting an end to illegal plant trade far surpasses the capability of an average plant enthusiast, but there are little things we can do now that change the state of affairs in the future. By getting plant material from trusted sources, especially when rarities are in question, as well as learning about endangered species, we can avoid unintentionally supporting plant poaching and contributing to biodiversity loss.
- Maron, D.F. (2022). These tiny succulents are under siege from international crime rings. National Geographic, March 2022.
- Warren, L. (2019). Crimes Against Nature. The National Wildlife Federation. December 2019.
- Muneta, J.D. (2020). Peyote crisis confronting modern indigenous peoples: the declining peyote population and a demand for conservation. American Indian Law Journal. 2019, Vol.9, Iss.1, Article 6.
- Mele, C. (2016). Venus flytraps need protection from poachers in North Carolina. The New York Times.
- Gaascht, F., Dicato, M., Diederich, M. (2013). Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula Solander ex Ellis) contains powerful compounds that prevent and cure cancer. Frontiers in Oncology, 2013; 3: 202.