Searching for “Conophytum” on Etsy brings up hundreds of results. These succulents can be shaped like gumdrops or tiny hearts, and they range in color from watermelon pink to sage green. Many sellers say the plant is rare, which is true; wild Conophytum plants only grow in southern Africa, and several species in the genus are endangered. Fewer listings say where the succulent was sourced.
Conophytum is one group of succulents poachers are targeting to meet the high demand for unusual houseplants. Roughly a third of the world’s succulent species grow in South Africa, and as The New York Times reported in July 2021, the illegal plant trade has become a threat to the country’s ecosytems in recent years. The U.S. has attracted a wave of succulent poachers as well. Dudleya, a genus of succulents whose plump leaves grow in petal-like patterns, is native to California. In September 2021, the state passed a law banning unauthorized Dudleya picking from the wild. That law was exercised in January 2022, when a South Korean man was sentenced to two years in prison for poaching hundreds of thosands of dollars' worth of the plants from the coast.
Experts blame the thriving succulent black market on the current houseplant craze. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people looking for ways to brighten their living space became new plant parents. In 2020, interest in buying plants nearly doubled, according to search data. Amassing rare and interesting specimens is also easier than ever. Online groups and marketplaces allow collectors to buy plants from around the world, and these same platforms let sellers profit off illegally harvested plants discreetly.
Some reports say succulent enthusiasts in South Korea are fueling illicit activity, but experts are skeptical. While researching his new book The Succulent Subject: A Political Ecology of Plants, Desire and Illicit Trade, Jared Margulies found little evidence of illegal Dudleya plants in the country. As he told Vox, he suspects the succulents are sometimes shipped to South Korea before being exported to other markets, such as China, the UK, and even their place of origin in the U.S.
Vulnerable plant species rarely receive the same attention as endangered animals. California’s ban on Dudleya harvesting is one of only three laws aimed at plant poaching in the U.S. (The other two are designed to protect saguaro cacti and Venus flytraps, respectively). A poached Conophytum bud may not elicit the same emotional response as a tusk of ivory, but it’s still cause for concern. The range of these plants is relatively small, which means they could be driven to the brink of extinction by just a few poaching sprees. Succulents are an important food source for pollinators like birds and insects, and their roots help maintain healthy, stable soil in the arid environments where they flourish. If they're not protected, the effects of their loss would ripple across ecosystems.
Harsh laws can be an effective deterrent for criminals, but they don't necessarily tackle the crux of the problem. The people getting arrested and punished for plant poaching are often middlemen earning a fraction of the profits from their hauls. They’re sent to prison, and meanwhile, the people who hired them are able to continue with their business.
Another way to fight succulent poaching is by raising consumer awareness. Buyers may assume that every plant they see for sale online was harvested legally, but, sadly, that isn’t the case. The best way to be sure that your plant hobby is ethical is by shopping at reputable retailers and independent nurseries. Purchasing succulents online from places like Facebook, eBay, and Etsy requires a little extra research. If a seller is boasting about how rare their specimen is, they should be able to say where it came from.