Beware of Plant Poachers

CalMatters last week reported on a little known problem—in a case of James Bond-like international intrigue, criminals in California are rappelling down coastal cliffs and being tracked by state game wardens dressed in camouflage. What’s the deal? Since about 2017, criminals have been stealing native succulent plants from California’s state parks and other wild areas on a large scale for resale overseas.

Most of the plant poachers seem to be focusing on the Central and Northern California coasts, but Malibu has its own native species of dudleya and its own parks. 

Last November, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area biologist Mark Mendelsohn said the succulents were staging a comeback following a devastating blow to several unique subspecies during the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

“A few of them, almost all of their populations were burned in the Woolsey Fire,” Mendelsohn said, but his team was closely tracking the recovery of this “cute little plant,” as well as the lichen out of which it grows. 

When poaching is discovered, the state’s investigators confiscate any captured “contraband,” in this case not drugs, but native California dudleya (or live-forevers), before the plants can be shipped off and sold on the black market.

“In recent years, poachers have ripped thousands of pounds of dudleya from California coastlines, shipping them overseas for high profits,” wrote Nick Jensen, conservation program director of the California Native Plant Society. “Some are rare species, found nowhere else on earth. Some are more than a hundred years old; few will live long outside their natural habitat.”

In October 2018, three South Korean nationals were charged by the U.S. Justice Department after attempting to export more than $600,000 worth of wild succulents they poached from state parks in Northern California, the New York Times reported. The men drove to several state parks and pulled the succulents out of the ground, officials said. Volunteers then replanted more than 2,000 of the confiscated dudleyas.

In a different case, Sonoma County’s Press Democrat reported in 2019 that “investigators now believe several hundred thousand plants worth tens of millions of dollars on the Asian black market have been torn illegally from bluffs along the Northern California coast over the past several years, in some cases stripping whole areas of the plant species,” according to Adrian Foss, a captain with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The wild plants are shipped to Asia for ornamental use even though they’re grown easily in a nursery setting. Officials say the smuggled plants sell for $40 to $80 each on the black market in South Korea, China and Japan, and large plants might sell for up to $1,000.

Wildlife officials, conservation advocates and legislators hope to address this threat to the environment with the introduction of state Assembly Bill 223 by Assemblymember Chris Ward of San Diego. The bill is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee and would make it explicitly illegal to poach California dudleya with fines of up to $50,000 for a first offense and up to $500,000 for any subsequent conviction. It would be the first California law drafted specifically to protect plants from poaching. 

“We believe this legislation will help deter dudleya poaching and highlight the threats plants and wildlife face amid unchecked consumer demand,” Jensen wrote. 

Although many people are familiar with wildlife poaching for ivory and shark fins, the issue of plant poaching isn’t nearly as well known. Experts say that each year, poachers steal plants from wild habitats to support the demand for novelty specimens of orchids, carnivorous plants and succulents, and that some species are now on the verge of extinction because of it. 

When poachers remove any kind of plant from the wild, they generally damage more than just the plant itself—they’re damaging an entire ecosystem.

“Fragile coastal habitats can be irreparably damaged by poaching operations. Insects and pollinators, many of which are also imperiled, rely on native species like dudleya for habitat and food,” Jensen stated. “Even more distressing is that poaching could be a nail in the coffin for some of our most endangered species.”

According to Conservation International, California is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, and that includes 42 of the 68 types of dudleya known on earth, 10 of which are listed under the California and/or federal endangered species acts.

Anyone observing plant poachers can report them by calling 888.334.CalTIP to provide confidential information about poaching and polluting or submit information/photos directly through the state’s downloadable cellphone app.

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