The pandemic obsession with plants could lead to the disappearance of rare species
After almost a decade without rainfall, 10mm of rain has made an entire desert bloom in South Africa. Rare species in Richtersveld National Park have awakened and flowered for the first time in nine years, before being stolen for the illegal plant trade, The Guardian reported. Poaching of plants is neither new nor unique to the region; but pandemic-inspired houseplant purchases have exacerbated the problem around the world.
According to Pieter van Wyk, botanist and nursery curator at Richtersveld, the World Heritage site is the most biodiverse desert in the world. With its unique geology, including the oldest mountains in the world, and its location creating the perfect ecosystem for many plants to thrive, more than 3,000 plant species exist in a relatively small area, of which 400 are endemic to the region, reported The Guardian. Many of these are prized succulents that fetch high prices on the black market. Some species are so specialized that they only grow in a valley or on a mountain peak. There are even cases where an entire species lives in an area smaller than a football field, “so a poacher could make a species extinct in one morning,” noted The Guardian.
“When it comes to rare plants, more than half of the plants in the region were not rare, but are now becoming rare” due to environmental and human factors, van Wyk told EcoWatch.
Van Wyk adds how high the demand is and how low the supply is, especially for charismatic and endangered species, which makes the black market quite profitable. South African factories such as the one in Richtersveld are being sold to remote locations by crime syndicates who outsource the theft to desperate locals and even tourists, he said.
“People [here] don’t have a job … People are in desperate need of money and food, ready to make a quick buck, “van Wyk explained. Due to the increased interest in rare plants,” now unions pay locals several months’ wages for plants that are ultimately sold in Asia and Europe, as well as America, for values that could support a family for years in Namaqualand. “
Van Wyk noted that the attractiveness of the black market continues to grow as ethical and legal nurseries can take five to 15 years to build sufficient stock for retail, while it can be difficult to manage regulations. export and obtain permits.
He told the Guardian that plant poaching in South Africa could eclipse the country’s lucrative rhino horn industry. The nursery’s curator is concerned that many iconic species will become extinct in his lifetime, having already suffered massive losses in the past five years, The Guardian added. This is mainly due to poaching and habitat loss due to agriculture, mining and the climate crisis, van Wyk told EcoWatch.
The botanist also warned that the global-local cycle of crime has caused locals to poach more than what is required of them. “The Quick Win program has gone viral among locals who are now removing plants without having buyers, causing widespread destruction with many plants ultimately discarded,” van Wyk told EcoWatch.
He warned that this loss of biodiversity will have a greater impact on general ecology, ecosystem health and climate regulation. “It also has a serious impact on humans, because [this area] will eventually become uninhabitable, and probably soon, ”said van Wyk.
Poaching of plants in itself is not a new crime nor limited to South Africa. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) defines the act as the illegal removal of rare and endangered plants from their natural habitat. Plants are stolen without regard to laws and regulations created for their protection, and theft can occur on public land or private property.
In a 2020 “buyer beware” warning for Venus fly trap plants, FWS called on collectors to help poach the stems of the popular potted plant. Endemic to North and South Carolina, wild populations of the carnivorous plant are in severe decline. Habitat loss and alteration are the main threats, but poaching is causing enough damage that it was declared a crime in 2014.
Another article from The Guardian highlighted how the quarantine-fueled gardening craze around the world is also driving plant poaching in the Philippines. Carnivorous plants and those used to grow bonsai have become particularly popular, and these species, along with other endangered species, are being extracted from forests and mountains in record numbers, according to the article.
The iconic saguaro cacti are another wild plant now threatened with extinction due to climate change and poaching. Saguaros grow slowly, taking 50 years to reach three feet tall, A Natural Curiosity reported. Cacti usually don’t start growing their famous arms until they are at least 70 years old and can live for around 150 years. Highly coveted among collectors, cacti sell for up to $ 100 per foot. But saguaro poaching has escalated to the point that individual wild plants are now microchipped to track and deter poaching.
While not as widely publicized as animal poaching, removing plants from nature has “an equally important effect on the vital balance needed to maintain healthy ecosystems,” reported A Natural Curiosity. The article also covered a problem faced by small rosette succulents in California. These succulents prevent erosion on rocks and cliffs where few other plants can survive, and removing them for houseplants destabilizes the entire base of the ecosystem. And that is exactly what is happening due to the pandemic demand for plants.
As plants such as monsters, hoyas and succulents gained popularity on social media, poachers were enlisted to procure them, regardless of the consequence, A Natural Curiosity found.
FWS offered some tips for rare plant collectors to avoid purchasing poached or stolen plants:
- Examine the entire board. Plants propagated in nurseries or in tissues will have a uniform size. Poached plants are more likely to vary in size.
- Examine the ground. The nursery soil is uniform, often with sterile peat moss. A mixture of gravel and sand in the ground is a clue.
- Look for other species growing in the same pot. Weed pots are another indication that the plants were collected from the wild.