In South Africa, Poachers Now Traffic in Tiny Succulent Plants
STEINKOPF, South Africa – On a moonless night in the desert in the far west of South Africa, Avrill Kaffer had just completed a sale when vehicles with flashing lights emerged from the darkness and a The Stock Theft and Endangered Species officer leapt from behind a nearby bush, ordering him to bring it to the ground.
By the time Mr. Kaffer realized he had been trapped, he was already handcuffed. As he watched, the police opened the eight large cardboard boxes he had brought with him.
Inside, they found thousands of small, brown, pellet-like plants – Conophytums, native to this part of Africa – apparently recently unearthed.
Conophytum, a genus of flowering plants that consists of over 100 species – many of which are listed as endangered – are the latest victims of a global wave of succulent poaching driven by growing demand from collectors and enthusiasts around the world, but especially in China and Korea, experts said.
South Africa is home to about a third of all succulent species, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and experts say this wave of poaching poses a serious threat to biodiversity.
“The conophytums are the big thing now,” said Captain Karel Du Toit, the officer behind the undercover operation that led to Mr. Kaffer’s arrest. Captain Du Toit, himself an avid admirer of Conophytum, said he spent most of his time investigating cases of cattle rustling, but since 2018 tackling succulent poaching has become a job at full-time.
“80% of them are crates of plants,” he said in his office, pointing to a pile of files stacked on the floor next to his desk. “The problem is getting huge. “
Once considered in South Africa as plants for the poor, succulents have become fashionable internationally in recent years, appreciated for their quirky, sculptural forms and the low maintenance they require. A search for #succulents now brings more than 12 million hits on Instagram.
The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted an already vibrant houseplant industry, with garden centers reporting a sharp increase in sales of houseplants since lockdowns were first imposed in many countries in 2020.
The pandemic has also changed the way succulent poachers operate, law enforcement officials have said. A few years ago, those arrested by Captain Du Toit and his colleagues were almost all foreign nationals, mostly Chinese and Korean passport holders. But since the pandemic imposed travel restrictions, foreign buyers are hiring locals to poach.
“They provide the local population with GPS readings for the places where the plants are growing,” said Captain Du Toit.
This change has brought the country’s conservation authorities into conflict with a growing number of unemployed young people who see these factories as a chance to escape poverty.
“It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” Kaffer said after his arrest, as two officers counted the Conophytums he was trying to sell, putting them in bags of evidence. The first box alone contained some 1,424 plants.
Mr Kaffer expected to get 160,000 rand, about $ 11,000, for his factories, but Captain Du Toit said their market value overseas would be much higher.
A former diamond miner, Mr Kaffer, who is 40, said he had been unemployed for more than a year and struggled to support his family. The unemployment rate in South Africa reached nearly 33% during the pandemic.
Typically, convicted persons have the option of paying a fine and receiving a suspended sentence or, failing that, serving a short prison sentence.
In botanical gardens and greenhouses in the North Cape and Western Cape provinces, where the poaching epidemic is most severe, botanists are struggling to cope with a massive influx of succulents confiscated from poachers. With too many plants to replant in the wild and face the risk of contaminating remaining wild populations, authorities now hope to keep as many alive as possible until a long-term decision is made on what to do. make it.
“I literally have case after case,” said a Cape botanist who helps care for confiscated succulents and serves as an expert witness for prosecutors. The man asked to remain anonymous, citing recent threats received by a colleague.
In his warehouse, where he says he has received around 2,500 poached Conophytum per week since the start of the year, trays filled with succulents are placed along a series of metal tables, each section corresponding to a police bust. different.
One table contained a mix of haworthias, adromischus, and gasterias, other types of succulents, seized from a pair of Czech poachers in 2019. Next to it were trays of Conophytums confiscated from a Korean poacher who had taken it. was found to be on the run from California authorities. , where he was accused of stealing more than half a million dollars worth of Dudleya farinosa plants.
“These were taken in the mail,” the botanist said, pointing to several boxes of miniature plants of Conophytum comptonii. “It’s just crazy, people can’t get the plants fast enough.”
Stemming the tide of poaching is a major challenge. The South African government is understaffed to monitor the vast open spaces where Conophytums grow. Additionally, plant crime specialists recognize that few police or customs officials can even identify a Conophytum, let alone differentiate a nursery from a wild plant.
In the event that wild populations are wiped out, the South African National Institute of Biodiversity aims to collect specimens of rare species to keep in culture.
“The demand for rare and wild harvested plants is skyrocketing, and many of these species, especially Conophytums, only occur in very small localized populations, so they could be collected to extinction in some visits from poachers, ”said Ismail Ebrahim, a leading project at the Institute.
Poaching of plants is not a new phenomenon. But the internet has opened the market wide, said Carly Cowell, a South African scientist now based at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, who was involved in a recent project using artificial intelligence to track the illegal plant trade in line.
“The Internet is a major and major change,” she said. “We found out that there is a huge online plant business. Many buyers of illegally harvested plants did not seem to know they were breaking the law, she said, adding that “people are quite ignorant or naive about what constitutes the illegal plant trade.”
A recent study by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty body that combats the illegal trade in wildlife, found that some 365 endangered medicinal plants were sold openly on Amazon and eBay.
Dr Cowell said solving the problem is made more difficult by a phenomenon known as “plant blindness” – the human tendency to view plants as inherently less important than animals.
Michelle Pfab, head of the South Africa Biodiversity Institute, said many nonprofit groups focus on endangered animals because it is easier to raise funds for species. charismatic ”.
“You use pictures of orphans and cute babies and it’s so easy to get donations,” she said. “It’s so difficult to do that with plants. “
Ms Pfab said she was frustrated that as the number of poaching arrests increased, few of the key players were apprehended.
“It’s mostly the infantry who get caught, the poor who try to put food on the table,” she said.
She argues that South Africa will struggle to contain the wave of poaching until requested species become more readily available from legal sources such as nurseries. It might take some time.
“If you start from scratch with a packet of seeds, you won’t make a dime for four or five years,” said Minette Schwegmann, owner of a large succulent nursery in Robertson, east Cape Town.
Ms Schwegmann said she regularly receives orders for tens of thousands of mature Conophytum. When she replies that she can’t supply these quantities from her nursery, some potential buyers ask her why she can’t just dig them up in the wild.
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