South Africa's new plant poaching epidemic

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 seen entering the reserve. Heart pounding, she grabbed a long hunting knife and slipped it into the sheath she wore beneath her uniform. Then she jumped into her car and set off in pursuit.

Some 230 kilometers 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.

In recent years, ornamental succulents have become fashionable around the world and the burgeoning demand from plant collectors has fueled what botanists refer to as a global poaching epidemic. 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.

When Weideman eventually found the trespassers, who turned out to be a middle-aged Spanish couple, she ordered them to open up their backpacks. Peering inside, she found them packed to the brim with rare plants. The next morning, police officers raided the guesthouse in which the couple had been staying. On the bedroom floor lay a stack of 14 cardboard boxes.

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