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The Illegal Plant Trade: a Type of Poaching You've Probably Never Heard Of

Animals Aren't the Only Victims of Poaching

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term "poaching" is most likely illegal wildlife hunting and trade. The sad plight of elephants and rhinos, illegally hunted for their tusks and horns to satisfy a cruel black market demand, is well known. Another type of poaching—plant poaching—is largely overlooked, but is just as devastating. Many plants are on the verge of extinction due to illegal harvesting from their natural environments. Many are sold for herbal remedies, but some are harvested and sold just for their beauty and rarity. The more endangered a plant is, the more money it can make the poacher.

It may be hard to get people to empathise with the plight of plants. The demise of plants will likely never elicit the same emotional response as the death of an endangered animal. However, plants are just as important to the delicate ecosystems they inhabit. Ecosystems are very intricate, and scientists just have no way of knowing all the ways that a plant's elimination from that system would affect other organisms.

Here are a few threatened plant species that are in danger of becoming extinct unless something is done to stop illegal plant poaching:

Rows of ginseng and mushroom elixirs found in Seoul, Korea marketplace.

Rows of ginseng and mushroom elixirs found in Seoul, Korea marketplace.


The root of the wild ginseng plant is highly valued in Asian markets. Though claims have not been scientifically substantiated, ginseng root is believed to have many medicinal uses, such as improving concentration, memory, and focus, stimulating the immune system, and even treating cancer. Because Asian ginseng has been over-harvested to near extinction, consumers have turned to America for a new source.

In the US, ginseng poaching is very lucrative. Poachers can expect to make $500–$600 per pound. Because the wild roots are believed by some to be more potent than the legally cultivated roots, legal ginseng only brings in about $50 per pound. Legally cultivated ginseng also takes up to 6 years to mature- which is another reason why poachers prefer to steal fully grown wild ginseng from parks. Wild ginseng is found in 12 US states, and is considered threatened in 9 of those states. Poachers have been pushing into the backcountry between Mississippi and The Great Smoky Mountains, and ripping up ginseng populations—regardless of age or maturity—in search of a quick buck, since the 1970s.

It can be difficult for park rangers to catch the culprits. Because of their small size, ginseng roots are easily hidden in backpacks and hiked right out of parks. Many illegal harvesters are uprooting the plants before they are even mature enough to be viable for herbal drug production. Ginseng plants need to be at least 3 to 4 years old in order to be mature enough for reproduction. If the ginseng plant is not allowed to reproduce, there will be no new wild plants. This type of harvesting is unsustainable. Some scientists predict that if left unchecked, the ginseng plant could become extinct within the next 100 years.

Ornamental Cactus

Ornamental Cactus

Ornamental Cacti

A third of all cactus species are at risk of extinction due to the illegal trade of the live plants and seeds for ornamental collections. Cacti are commonly used in ornamental horticulture, due to their beautiful blooms. Some species are also used in traditional medicine or for religious purposes, such as the peyote cactus. Researchers have found that over 85% of ornamental cacti on the market have been taken from the wild, and populations for some ornamental species have more than halved in the past 15 years.

Authorities have reason to believe that cactus smuggling rings are the third biggest money-making racket in Mexico, falling just behind drugs and guns. For rare species, some buyers are willing to pay over $10,000 for a single plant. This is attractive to organised crime rings, because the risks of poaching and smuggling cacti are much less than drugs or human trafficking, and requires substantially less work. If found guilty, poachers could face up to 2 years in jail and a $25,000 fine, however, prosecutions in Mexico are exceedingly rare. Police have their hands full trying to concentrate most of their resources on eradicating drug cartels.

The desert is a very hot, dry, and generally inhospitable place for life. Nevertheless, many animals thrive in the desert, specifically due to the cactus and the vast amounts of water it is able to store. Tortoises, deer, lizards, snakes, and even coyotes all depend upon cacti for water, and for some, food in order to survive. Cacti are essential to their ecosystems, and shouldn't be taken from them without any regard to sustainability.

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Beautiful Orchids.

Beautiful Orchids.


Due to a recent spike in rare plant collecting, many species of rare orchids are disappearing from parks all over the US. Orchids are notoriously finicky plants, and orchids dug-up from parks are likely to die. Sadly, a combination of the plant's frailty and rarity makes them all the more valuable to potential buyers. The more rare a species is, the more money it rakes in to poachers.

In South Carolina, some orchid species have disappeared almost completely. The white fringeless orchid, known to have been poached out of existence in other states, hasn't been seen in South Carolina in the wild for quite some time. Its relative, the orange fringeless orchid, hasn't been seen in nearly 5 years. It once grew in only 9 locations of the Francis Marion National Forest, but that is no longer the case. Local wildflower watchers began to notice large holes in areas where the plant had once inhabited, but the suspects were never caught. Spores from the plant can lie dormant for years in the soil until conditions are just right. Naturalists have no way of knowing when or if they will ever see these species in the wild again.

The plants are being considered for the Endangered Species list. If the orchids are placed on the list, they will be protected under federal and state law, and violations will result in a fine of $100,000. Park rangers hope this will help to protect the plants, by deterring poaching, however there are not enough park rangers and staff to fully patrol the parks and enforce the law. Only time will tell the fate of the white and orange fringeless orchids.

Venus Flytrap In The Wild

Venus Flytrap In The Wild

Venus Flytraps

Most Venus Flytraps purchased from nurseries and garden centers are legally grown, however a large number of them are being harvested to near extinction in North Carolina. The carnivorous plants are attractive for their novelty factor, though they don't bring the poacher a very high price. Poachers often sell the plants for as low as twenty-five cents to dealers who then resell them for a paltry sum of up to ten dollars per plant.

Venus Flytraps can take years to properly germinate and grow, which is what makes taking the fully grown plants more attractive to poachers who are just looking to turn a quick buck. The plants are only native to a small 90-mile radius in North Carolina. Scientists warn that removing them from their natural environment can harm animals and other plants in their ecosystem in ways that we do not yet fully understand. They are already threatened by habitat destruction due to logging, construction, and animal grazing. If left unchecked, it's entirely possible for them to become extinct, especially since they only grow in a such a small area.

CITIES and DNA Barcoding

Plant and animal poaching is a global problem, particularly because of the international nature of the trading. One approach to solving this issue is CITIES or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITIES is an agreement between countries to try and lower the amount of illegal trade and protect wildlife from becoming extinct. Participation is voluntary, but legally binding, though it doesn't take the place of any national or international laws. Since forming, CITIES has made agreements to protect more than 30,000 different species from being poached.

Another approach to stopping illegal plant trading and smuggling is DNA Barcoding. While CITIES does a fairly good job of monitoring for illegal endangered species smuggling, a whole lot of endangered plants end up slipping through customs at airports. In an effort to disguise the species of plant, smugglers will sometimes deface the plants by removing leaves and other identifiers or by grounding them up - particularly if they're going to be used as herbal drugs. Many customs officials have no way of properly proving if a plant is illegal or not as many plants are hard to identify even if they have not been defaced.

This is where the Barcode of Wildlife Project (BWP) comes in. By using DNA barcoding, plants can be identified on a species level to help officials determine whether a plant is legal or not. Google has given BWP a grant of 3 million dollars to help them set up an "open-access reference library of endangered species" that can be used to identify a suspect plant by comparing a sample of its DNA to the database. BWP has barcoded 2000 species that are protected under CITIES, as well as over 8000 look-alike species. Thanks to DNA barcoding, arrests have already been made and several trials in several countries have already begun. The project is still in its infancy, but there is hope that it will continue to be an effective way of confirming illegal activity and helping to provide evidence in cases against illegal plant traffickers. Hopefully, through public education of endangered plants and animals, and new technological breakthroughs and solutions for catching smugglers, poaching will become a problem of the (more primitive seeming) past.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Erika Ford

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