US: Tiny succulent plants are being poached by the thousands

Last month, a South Korean man was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wild dudleya plants from the California coast. The small, cactus-like succulents, which grow in lotus-shaped rosettes of fleshy leaves, are so valued by collectors that, in recent years, dudleya have been pilfered by the thousands from their native habitat and shipped around the world to be sold.

The environmental impact of this plant poaching is now so destructive that in September 2021, California passed a law making it illegal to harvest dudleya from the wild without landowner permission or a permit. The misdemeanor crime carries a possible six-month prison sentence and up to $500,000 in fines.

Plant poaching can seriously harm the natural world and the diversity of species that compose it, said Jared Margulies, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who studies the illicit succulent trade. Cacti and other succulents are important pollinators for birds, moths, and insects, and their roots are important in arid environments to maintain healthy soil and reduce erosion. “When you start removing them from the ecosystem,” Margulies said, “the cascading effects are potentially really significant.”

But unlike illegal animal trades such as those in elephant ivory or rhino horns, plant poaching often receives less attention, according to Margulies. He spent the last few years researching the booming illegal trade in dudleya — of which there are around 68 species and subspecies — and other succulents. He plans to publish his findings in a forthcoming book, The Succulent Subject: A political ecology of plants, desire and illicit trade.

International and national laws and treaties do protect many plants and animals from poaching, but the illegal trade in endangered and desirable species is still estimated to cause as much as $2 trillion in economic damage per year. And it often happens online: in Facebook groups, on eBay, Etsy, and Instagram, Margulies says. 

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