HANDOUT – Plants confiscated from smugglers by police in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, which are under conservation and are considered critically endangered or endangered. Photo: – / South African Police Service / dpa – ATTENTION: Only for editorial use in connection with the current reporting and only with full mention of the above credits
A few weeks later, smugglers are caught in South Africa with the endangered plant species. Their trading is prohibited.
“We receive a new report on plant poaching almost every day,” complains Pieter van Wyk, 33, a botanist who works closely with the South African Institute for Biodiversity (Sanbi). Almost a third of all succulent plants in the world can be found in South Africa. Many of them are under nature protection.
Boosted by social media, the illegal plant trade has taken on proportions similar to rhino poaching, with international criminal networks pulling the cord, explains van Wyk. The hashtag #PlantTikTok has 3.5 billion views, while Instagram has 12.3 million entries with the hashtag #Succulents. It is about loving and caring for plants and pretty pictures, but also about selling them, which is often illegal.
The more threatened a plant, the higher the demand and thus the price. According to the botanist, a plant that cost the equivalent of 1 euro two years ago is now being traded for 1700 euros. “It’s almost like Bitcoin, an artificially created market that has taken on disproportionate mass,” says van Wyk. The succulents – also known as fatty plants – often grow in pretty geometric patterns or unusual shapes, are particularly popular in Asia, Europe and North America.
Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, are now developing artificial intelligence algorithms to help scour the Internet for information about the illegal trade in endangered plants. The aim is to use a combination of botanical expertise, criminology and communication technology to analyze online behavior and uncover the locations of poachers and buyers.
It’s a race against time. Plant smugglers are not only causing great damage in South Africa. The trend is also growing in Latin America. In Chile, the illegal trade in particularly rare cacti has become one of the most lucrative criminal business areas. “This translates into annual sales of between five and 23 billion US dollars,” explains botanist Pablo Guerrero from the University of Concepción. It is particularly attractive for collectors to own cacti that are only found in a certain region, said the director of the Antofagasta forestry department, Cristian Salas, on the Chilean television channel T13.
A year ago, during a raid in the Italian province of Ancona, police discovered cacti from the Chilean Atacama desert. “About 1,000 plants were confiscated, some of which were sold for $ 2,000 to $ 5,000 per plant,” said Simone Checchini of the Carabinieri. Most of the plants seized were cacti of the genus Copiapoa, which are only found in this extremely dry desert. “This region has been heavily plundered by illegal gatherers in recent years, which has contributed to the rapid decline in the populations of these species …”, it said in a message from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Mexico is also badly affected by the cactus smuggling. According to the local environmental authorities, a total of 518 of the approximately 1400 species that exist worldwide are endemic, i.e. distributed in a limited area. The giant cacti of the Sonoran Desert and the nopal (prickly pear) with red fruits – it is also found on the country’s flag – are probably the best-known species from Mexico. But a large number of other cacti are in demand with collectors. The illegal plant trade is, however, a “silent problem”, the importance of which is often overlooked, wrote the organization InSight Crime in an analysis.
In the south-western Cape Floral region of South Africa, which is classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and in the Namaqualand district further north, which is famous for its plant diversity, dozens of species grow that are unique in the world and only thrive on a few square meters. Smugglers can exterminate the plants with just a few blows of the spade. Last year, for example, according to Cape Nature, authorities confiscated almost 150 kilos of a plant classified as “almost endangered”. “What we are seeing at the moment is the rapid and complete loss of entire species,” warns van Wyk.
In Namaqualand, the trap snapped shut in mid-2020. The police caught four poachers in the act. They wanted to sell protected plants on the edge of a country road worth the equivalent of 112,000 euros. The plants were confiscated, but once plucked from the earth, the sensitive plants can only survive in botanical nurseries, tended by trained staff. “This is the great tragedy,” said police captain Karel du Toit, who heads a special unit for plant smuggling, the radio station Cape Talk. “They are lost forever to the great outdoors.”