The dark side behind the growing popularity of succulents

Posted by David Henning on 24 August 2021

In May 2019, the South African Police Service initiated an undercover operation called ‘Operation Crassula,’ where agents were engaged in negotiations and transactions amounting to millions between buyers of protected plant species.

Picture: Unsplash

Operation Crassula was terminated in May 2021 after successfully seizing Eriosperum plants valued at R50 000. But it seems as though Operation Crassula was only scratching the surface of a clandestine plant smuggling network.

Growing exotic plants in apartments is a recent trend that has proliferated around the world, with supply struggling to keep up with demand. Some sought-after species are fetching healthy figures and the sleepy regions of South Africa’s Great Karoo have become abuzz with succulent prospectors.

A growing craze

Succulents have become common in many households, with a search on Pinterest or Instagram revealing thousands of hits, and the phenomenon has especially proliferated in European and Asian markets.

Succulents have become an urban trend globally, with nurseries reporting an increase in sales. Picture: Unsplash.

Popular species include Eriosperum, Crassulas, and the especially endangered Conophytums. Popular for their aesthetic value and their low maintenance, the indoor plant growing trend is premised on bringing nature indoors and it’s difficult to imagine that it is fuelling an environmentally damaging and lucrative trade.

Millions of often endangered and endemic plant species are plucked from their natural habitats and smuggled off to sellers, passing them onto buyers in North America, Asia and Europe.

A lucrative trade

In May 2019, four men were arrested in Kamieskroon when a joint operation found them in possession of succulent plants with an estimated value of R1.5 million.

Confiscated succulents after a successful police operation near Vanrhynsdorp. Credit: SAPS

They were found guilty in accordance with the Northern Cape Conservation Act, sentenced to two years in jail and were ordered to donate R100 000 to a Nature Conservation Organisation.

The list goes on: in November of last year, the  Organised Crime Investigation Narcotics Unit confiscated a box of 600 succulents at a vehicle checkpoint in Klawer. May of this year was a busy month, with police apprehending 18 suspects in four unrelated cases, confiscating succulents conservatively valued at more than R500 000.

Police gather evidence as part of Operation Crassula. Credit: SAPS.

SAPS captain Karel Du Toit told the New York Times that Conophytums are the big thing now. Forming part of the Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, Captain Du Toit says he used to spend most of his time investigating stock theft but 80% of his cases today involve plant trafficking.

This can be attributed to the growing number of young, unemployed South Africans who see these plants as a chance of escaping poverty where authorities lack personnel to police the vast open spaces of the Northern Cape, let alone plant crime specialists who can identify Conophytum and differentiate it from nursery-grown ones.

A growing problem

Ismael Ibrahim of the South African Insitute for Biodiversity (SANBI) told the New York Times that with the growing demand for Conophytums which only occur in small localised populations, ‘they could be collected to extinction in a couple of visits by poachers.’

SANBI’s Custodians of Rare Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) 2020 newsletter relayed the damage of plant poaching when a study found that some locations had more than 90% of the known populations removed, and 12 species were uplisted to critically endangered, and 13 species uplisted to vulnerable or endangered.

‘Habitats that were once pristine have been scarred and now have gaping holes where beautiful plants used to grow. Plants that have been heavily targeted by poaching include several species in the dwarf succulent genus Conophytum, as well as various caudiciform species…,’ the newsletter read.

Police investigate confiscated Conophytums near Steinkpopf after an operation. Credit: SAPS.

In total 34 Conophytum species had an increased risk of extinction in 2020, thanks to illegal harvesting. The hotspots included Knersvlakte, Namaqualand, Kamiesberg and Richtersveld, all part of the Succulent Karoo Biome.

South Africa is home to a third of all succulent species, with poaching posing a serious threat to biodiversity. Authorities are unsure of how to proceed, with so many plants confiscated but replanting them risks contaminating wild populations.

Hoping to keep alive as many as possible, a botanist has received 2 500 poached Conophytum per week since the start of this year, and nurseries and greenhouses in the Northern Cape are struggling to keep up with the confiscated succulents.

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