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 spotted entering the reserve. She grabbed a long hunting blade and put it in the sheath underneath her uniform. Her heart pounding. Then, she got into her car and began to chase.

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.

Recent years have seen ornamental succulents become increasingly popular around the globe. This has led to what botanists call a global poaching crisis. 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.

Weideman finally found the trespassers, a middle-aged couple from Spain. She ordered them to open their backpacks. She found the backpacks full of rare plants as she looked inside. Police officers raided the guesthouse where the couple was staying the next morning. A stack of 14 cardboard boxes was found on the bedroom floor. boxes.

The officers opened them and found 2,248 plants. Some were wrapped in newspaper while others were just loosely packed. ‘So this is major,’Thought Weideman. ‘This is going to be a big fine.’

The haul was unpacked over the next few days and the plants were 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 these plants, including 26 Mesembryanthemum Digitum littlewoodii’s distinctive, jelly-bean-like foliage, can be found only in the wild 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).

The case appeared to be an anomaly at the time. 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.’

SANBI was concerned that some succulents might be eaten to extinction. Therefore, they have been collecting specimens from the most endangered species in order to ensure their survival in cultivation. They also conduct regular monitoring missions to assess current crisis status.

‘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. Collectors took over the entire range of the previously unknown slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum canhii, in order to make it disappear within months.

While orchids have been prized and poached for centuries, succulents are comparative horticultural newcomers. They can be described as any plant with fleshy, fluid-filled tissues. They come from two dozen plant families. Many succulents, including cacti, are also succulents. Their unique chunkiness is an adaptation that allows them water storage during periods of drought. This also gives them a certain aesthetic appeal to plant collectors, especially in Far East.

Of all the types of succulent being poached from South Africa, one name comes up again and again – conophytums. Tiny leaves that have swollen and become turgid orbs. ‘cushions’Conophytum is a genus of plants that looks very different from other plants. 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.’

Poachers often get illegally harvested succulents and send them to Johnson to be restored to health. This task was easy to accomplish a few years ago. But, as the number of confiscations has increased, it has become more difficult. He now receives about 2,500 plants each week. He says that it is impossible to plant them in the wild because of the sheer number of confiscations. Even if it were possible, it would be a risk to the remaining population. Selling them, on the other hand, could simply stimulate the market. Many end up here, in an endless sea, of planting trays in secret warehouses at remote locations, filling up the work benches and piling up under tables. A new batch of 13,000 conophytums arrived just that morning, having been intercepted by the mail.

‘They’ll just come and rip up the biggest and oldest plants they can find,’ says Johnson. ‘And for me that’It is an ecological disaster. 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. After stealing Dudleya farinosa, also known as the bluff salad, more than half a million dollars in US dollars, the man in question was already wanted by the USA.Police gathering after arresting a plant poacher in south africa

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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. He claims that a colleague of his received death threats via Facebook from plant thieves.

‘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 states that poachers can fit one of many profiles. They could be plant lovers or ruthless, commercially motivated cartel operatives. ‘vacuum cleaners’They will sweep up every plant of any value they find. They often bring with them lists of GPS coordinates that they have gleaned from metadata shared on the internet by unwitting photographer of plants.

The small plants are easy to export. You can either use bogus paperwork or none at any time. Few police officers or customs officers will even be able to recognize a conophytum. There is simply not enough staff or resources to patrol the vast open spaces where the succulents grow.

Several officers from the police have also spoken out about the worrying shift that took place after the country was placed in Covid-19 lockdown early 2020. Poachers started hiring locals to dig for them instead of flying in from overseas. This was to take advantage of the chronic joblessness that is common in rural areas that dot conophytum. This made it even more difficult for police to stop poaching. Experts suggest that large-scale cultivation could be used to curb illegal trade. Many succulent species are slow-growing and would not make much profit. 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 swahbuckling botanist–explorer Robert Fortune – an act that transformed global geopolitics for a century – have involved plant theft. Carly Cowell, a South African Botanist, says that the internet has opened the market to everyone. Cowell illustrates this point by citing the example of a small-scale Thai orchid vendor. ‘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 with a project that used artificial Intelligence technology to monitor online spaces where plants were 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. Of course, buyers and sellers were often unsure if what they were doing was legal. Even when they did, they were unlikely to be caught. They often operate in plain sight and barely bother to hide their activities. A survey revealed that there were more than 350 types protected plants being sold openly on and eBay. And that’s just the medicinal varieties.

A phenomenon called “The Problem” is one of the obstacles to addressing it. ‘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. When asked to identify the photo of a lion sitting in a tree, most people will simply respond, “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. The illegal hardwood trade is believed to exceed ivory, rhino horn, and big cats. Botanists agree that it can be difficult for people to care about poaching of plants, particularly when it is small and obscure succulent species. Cowell wants people to see the whole picture. ‘I like to see biodiversity as a brick wall,’She said. ‘Every species has its role. And if we start removing one brick at a time, eventually that wall’It’s going to be gone. 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 like it will affect us right away. But it’s just one more brick out of the wall. And it could be that last brick that makes it collapse.

ect 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.’

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

Poaching is a constant threat in the arid wilderness north of Cape Town, Namibia. ‘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 only three people responsible for protecting an area measuring 1,140 kilometres. For the most part, there is no barrier to anyone trying to enter the reserve. However, in some areas, this may be a low-barbed-wire fence. 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 nearing 40C, and heat waves are sweeping across the barren landscape.

After a minute or so, 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’Another one is here. And another.’ All around, ugly holes stand out like miniature bomb craters against the pale gravel. The challenge is enormous.

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. The three men then stand for a while looking out over the barren plains. The scene is still untouched by anything but a single black and white crow, which watches the scene from a fence post. Finally, the men get back in their cars and head home.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed with cutting-edge stories. It also features stunning photography. This magazine is ideal for anyone who is interested in the world, its landscapes and people. We cover everything from global health and scientific developments to climate change and the environment. Each issue includes book recommendations and infographics as well as maps and other useful information.

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