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South Africa's new plant poaching epidemic

  • Written by  Tommy Trenchard
  • Published in Wildlife
South Africa's new plant poaching epidemic
03 Mar
In South Africa, a new wave of poaching has taken off, but this time it isn’t big cats, elephants or rhinos that are in the firing line, but tiny succulent plants

On 14 July 2015, Melita Weideman, a park ranger in South Africa’s Knersvlakte Nature Reserve, was sipping coffee at her home in the town of Vanrhynsdorp when she received an urgent phone call. Two trespassers had been seen entering the reserve. Heart pounding, she grabbed a long hunting knife and slipped it into the sheath she wore beneath her uniform. Then she jumped into her car and set off in pursuit.

Some 230 kilometres north of Cape Town, Knersvlakte – Afrikaans for ‘grinding plain’ after the noise made by its distinctive white-quartz gravel underfoot – is one of the world’s more peculiar nature reserves. At first glance, it seems desolate – a barren expanse of rock and earth broken only by low, thirsty-looking shrubs. But look a little closer down at ground level and you’ll see whole areas dotted with miniature, alien-like succulent plants, some of which are exceptionally rare.

In recent years, ornamental succulents have become fashionable around the world and the burgeoning demand from plant collectors has fuelled what botanists refer to as a global poaching epidemic. In South Africa, one of the world’s most biodiverse nations and home to roughly a third of all succulent species, authorities are playing catch up as plant poachers pillage the country’s unique botanical heritage, driving rare species of succulent towards extinction.

When Weideman eventually found the trespassers, who turned out to be a middle-aged Spanish couple, she ordered them to open up their backpacks. Peering inside, she found them packed to the brim with rare plants. The next morning, police officers raided the guesthouse in which the couple had been staying. On the bedroom floor lay a stack of 14 cardboard boxes.

DSCF1862Avrill Kaffer is taken away by the police after being arrested for plant poaching in the desert outside Steinkopf, South Africa. Like roughly a third of South Africans, Kaffer, who is a former diamond miner, was out of work and hoped selling the plants would help him to support his family. Image: Tommy Trenchard

DSCF1084During the dry season, conophytums (like these ones seized during a sting operation), form a protective brown sheaf to protect themselves from the sun. Image: Tommy Trenchard

Opening them up, the officers discovered 2,248 plants, some wrapped in newspaper, others just jammed in loose. ‘So this is major,’ thought Weideman. ‘This is going to be a big fine.’

Over the following days, the haul was unpacked and the plants identified. Among them were 439 plants from South Africa’s Red List of threatened species; 179 of these were listed as endangered or critically endangered. More than 200 of the plants, including 26 Mesembryanthemum digitatum littlewoodii, with their distinctive, jelly-bean-like leaves, are found in the wild only on the reserve. Together, the haul had a value of about €70,000 on the European market. The couple were given suspended prison sentences and fined two million rand (about €150,000).

At the time, the case seemed like an anomaly. South Africans are familiar with the illegal wildlife trade – ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales and leopard skins have long been targeted by criminal syndicates – but the idea of poachers travelling all the way from Europe to steal tiny, lumpy-looking plants captured the public imagination. Today, the country’s conservation officials look back at the Knersvlakte case as the opening of the floodgates; in the six years since, succulent poaching has gone from an occasional rarity to a full-blown crisis, with busts now occurring on an almost weekly basis.

‘That’s when we became aware of it,’ says Michelle Pfab, of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). ‘But lately it’s been getting massive. And we’re still just scratching the surface. You don’t know how bad it is until you get out into the field.’

Worried that certain types of succulent could be poached into extinction, SANBI has been collecting specimens of the most threatened species to ensure they survive in cultivation, while also conducting regular monitoring missions to assess the state of the crisis.

‘It’s quite depressing what they’ve found,’ says Pfab, ‘especially with single-site endemics. Some sites have been completely wiped out.’

The laws of supply and demand can have a devastating impact on wildlife – the rarer a plant or animal is, the more coveted by collectors it tends to become. When the previously unknown slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum canhii) was first discovered in 2010, for example, collectors plundered its range so thoroughly that within months, just one per cent of the population remained.

While orchids have been prized and poached for centuries, succulents are comparative horticultural newcomers. Defined broadly as any plant with fleshy or fluid-filled tissues, they span two dozen plant families. Most cacti are succulents, as are many euphorbias, sedums and aloes. Their distinctive chunkiness is an adaptation that allows them to store water through periods of drought. But it also gives them a certain aesthetic appeal in the eyes of plant collectors, particularly in the Far East.

Of all the types of succulent being poached from South Africa, one name comes up again and again – conophytums. With tiny leaves swollen and fused together into turgid orbs or ‘cushions’, members of the genus Conophytum hardly look like plants at all. Found only in this corner of Africa, they’re sometimes known as living stones, ice plants or dumplings, and they come in an array of shapes, colours and sizes, with vibrant, delicate flowers that emerge only at certain times of the year. Many species of conophytum are barely the size of a pea, yet they hold an almost fanatical appeal to a certain type of niche-succulent enthusiast.

‘You literally have to look at them with a hand lens to appreciate the beauty of some of them – the markings on the leaves and the colouration,’ says David Johnson, a Cape Town-based horticulturalist and one of the country’s foremost conophytum experts. ‘And they’re very rewarding because they go through this ugly-duckling phase in summer, when they just look like nothing, and then they burst into this exquisite bloom in autumn.’

When poachers are caught with illegally harvested succulents, the confiscated plants are often sent to Johnson to be cared for and brought back to life. A few years ago, this task was manageable, but as the frequency of confiscations has risen, it has become overwhelming. He now receives some 2,500 plants every week. Replanting them in the wild is impossible due to the sheer scale of the confiscations, he explains. And even if it were feasible, it would risk contaminating the remaining populations. Selling them, on the other hand, could simply stimulate the market. As a result, many end up here, in an endless sea of planting trays in a warehouse at a secret location, overflowing the work benches and piling up under tables. Just that morning, a new batch of some 13,000 conophytums had been brought in, having been intercepted in the mail.

‘They’ll just come and rip up the biggest and oldest plants they can find,’ says Johnson. ‘And for me that’s the ecological tragedy. Because those ancient mother plants have been in the veld for probably 70 or 80, maybe even 100 years.’ In one recent bust of a serial South Korean succulent poacher, Johnson calculated the combined age of the poached plants to be 44,000 years. The man in question was already wanted in the USA after stealing more than half a million US dollars worth of Dudleya farinosa (known as the bluff lettuce), a local succulent.

DSCF1717Police officers gather after arresting a suspected plant poacher during a sting operation in the desert near Steinkopf, South Africa. Image: Tommy Trenchard

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Johnson, who is also regularly called upon to provide expert witness testimony during the ever-more-frequent trials of succulent poachers, agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity – Johnson is not his real name. His testimony has helped secure tough sentences for several international succulent thieves and although most of these individuals are now banned from entering South Africa, he fears retribution against him or his family at the hands of their local associates. A colleague of his recently received death threats on Facebook from plant thieves, he says.

‘It’s like an arms race,’ adds Paul Gildenhuys, a veteran plant-poaching specialist with the enforcement arm of Cape Nature, the body tasked with protecting the environment in South Africa’s Western Cape province. ‘We learn something new, then they adapt to counter it.’

Gildenhuys says the poachers tend to fit one of several profiles, from fanatical plant enthusiasts to ruthless commercially motivated cartel operatives who turn up with reams of information on their target species and work like ‘vacuum cleaners’, sweeping up every plant of value they find. Often, they arrive with lists of GPS coordinates extracted from the metadata of photos shared on the internet by unwitting plant photographers.

The diminutive plants are comparatively easy to export, either with bogus paperwork or none at all; few police or customs officers can even recognise a conophytum. In any case, there are simply not enough personnel or resources to police the vast open spaces in which the succulents grow.

Several police officials also describe a worrying shift that occurred after the country went into Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020. Rather than flying in from abroad, poachers were now hiring locals to do the digging for them, capitalising on the chronic joblessness that characterises the rural towns that dot conophytum country. This made the poaching wave even more difficult to police. One solution, according to several experts, would be to get the plants into large-scale cultivation to undermine the illegal trade. But many succulent species are slow growing and would offer meagre profits. Currently, the legal supply doesn’t come close to meeting demand.

Plant poaching isn’t a new phenomenon. Some of history’s greatest heists, such as the smuggling of tea (Camellia sinensis) seeds out of China by the swashbuckling botanist–explorer Robert Fortune – an act that transformed global geopolitics for a century – have involved plant theft. But according to Carly Cowell, a South African botanist now based at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the internet has blown the market wide open. Cowell uses the example of a small-scale orchid vendor in Thailand to make the point. ‘Instead of selling one little orchid to a tourist once a week, he’s now selling multiple, daily, to people all over the world, and just posting them,’ she says.

Cowell was recently involved in a project that used artificial intelligence technology to monitor the spaces on the internet where plants are bought and sold. One thing that quickly became apparent was how much of the online trade exists in the grey area between legal and illegal – or at least, how difficult it is to prove that a crime has been committed. Often, even the buyers and sellers themselves seemed unclear as to whether or not what they were doing was illegal. And even when they did, the risk of getting caught appeared to be so small that they often operated in plain sight, barely bothering to conceal their activities. A recent survey found more than 350 types of protected plant being sold openly on Amazon and eBay, and that was only the medicinal ones.

One of the challenges to addressing the problem is a phenomenon known as ‘plant blindness’ – the human tendency to see animals as more important than plants, despite the fact that life on Earth would be impossible without the latter. If shown a photo of a lion in a tree and asked what the photo depicts, most people simply say, a lion. ‘We don’t tend to see plants any more,’ says Cowell. ‘They just fade into the background. People don’t see plants as under threat, or having a huge value.’

Yet out of the 38,700 species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, almost 33,000 are plants. And the illegal hardwood trade alone is thought to outstrip that of ivory, rhino horn and big cats combined. The upshot, say botanists, is that it can be difficult to get people to care about plant poaching, particularly when it concerns tiny, obscure succulent species. Cowell tries to get people to see things holistically. ‘I like to see biodiversity as a brick wall,’ she says. ‘Every species has its role. And if we start removing one brick at a time, eventually that wall’s going to fall down. And with that one little conophytum species that’s now been taken out of the wild somewhere in the Karoo [desert region], it may not seem to affect us right now. But it’s just one more brick out of the wall. And it could be that last brick that makes it collapse.’

DSCF8044Conophytum ficiforme plants in bloom near Worcester, South Africa. Conophytums, a genus of small succulent plants endemic to Southern Africa, are in high demand from collectors around the world. Image: Tommy Trenchard

DSCF6900Conophytum plants grow in pots at a succulent nursery in Robertson, South Africa. Image: Tommy Trenchard

DSCF9579Nursery owner Minette Schwegmann weeds haworthia plants in her succulent nursery in Robertson, South Africa. She says trying to keep up with skyrocketing demand from overseas has become impossible in recent years. Image: Tommy Trenchard

In the arid wilderness that stretches north from Cape Town towards the Namibian border, poaching is now a constant threat. ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t trust anyone,’ says Wentzel Hornimann, the acting manager of the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve, as he drives over the bumpy terrain with two rangers in tow. ‘It makes me so angry.’

His team is chronically understaffed, with just three people responsible for protecting an area of some 1,140 square kilometres. And for the most part, the only obstacle to anyone who wants to enter the reserve is a low barbed-wire fence; in some places, not even that. Reaching a gleaming quartz-covered bank, the rangers climb down and begin meandering slowly forward, scouring the ground at their feet as they go. The temperature is approaching 40C and waves of heat ripple over the stark landscape.

After a minute or two, a shout goes up: ‘Here’s one!’ Beckoning, one of the rangers points down at a small, freshly dug hole where a conophytum once lived. ‘And here’s another over here. And another.’ All around, ugly holes stand out like miniature bomb craters against the pale gravel. The scale of the challenge is daunting.

Wandering off , the ranger takes a GPS reading of a small, surviving conophytum cluster, part of an ongoing project to monitor the state of the reserve’s flora. Then the three men stand for a while, looking out listlessly over the desolate plains. For as far as the eye can see, nothing moves save a solitary black and white crow that surveys the scene impassively from a fence post, until eventually, without a word, the men climb back into their vehicles and head for home.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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