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Poachers Are Fueling the Succulent Black Market By Stealing From State Parks

People can’t stop digging wild plants out of the dirt so they can resell them to other succulent fanatics.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Jun 5 2019, 3:00pm

Photo: Getty Images

If you search the words ‘succulent shirt’ on Etsy, you’ll immediately get hit with more than 2,000 results, including an “Adopt a Plant” tank top, a deep-green crew neck that reads “I’m a Succa for Plants,” and a t-shirt that says “Introverted But Willing to Discuss Succulents.”

We do need to discuss succulents, because they’re having a bit of a moment right now. Someone you know has recently added ‘Succulent Mom’ to her Instagram bio. Urban Outfitters currently sells a set of 20 soil-rooted live succulents ($69, online only), in addition to its succulent-shaped essential oil diffuser and rolls of paste-on succulent-printed wallpaper. And, because we’re all low-key obsessed, people can’t stop digging wild plants out of the dirt so they can resell them to other succulent fanatics.

According to the New York Times, three South Korean nationals were charged on Friday for digging more than $600,000 worth of Dudleya farinosa plants out of the ground so they could export and sell them. (Depending on where you live, you might know the same plant as bluff lettuce or powdery liveforever, both of which also sound like strains from your local cannabis dispensary.) The men, who were all in their mid-40s, reportedly spent last October driving to assorted state parks—including DeMartin State Beach, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Russian Gulch State Park—and they were observed removing those plants from the soil.

“Native Dudleya plants from coastal habitats in Northern California are particularly valuable in Asia due to their unique physical features, including the color and shape of their leaves,” the Attorney’s Office said in a statement. “Because growing the plants in nurseries takes years, smugglers are known to harvest wild, living Dudleya plants from the ground in Northern California and export the live plants to Asia, where they are sold on the black market.”

They took their illegal haul to a nursery in San Diego county, which was owned by one of the named defendants, Byungsu Kim. After lying to a county agriculture official in order to get exportation paperwork, the plants were taken to an exporter in Compton so they could be shipped to South Korea. The three defendants were arrested, and more than 660 pounds of succulents—3,715 Dudleya plants—were seized by law enforcement officers; the value of the illegal haul was an estimated $602,950. (Although one of the defendants is in custody, Kim and one of his alleged co-conspirators have both fled the United States.)

This isn’t the first Dudleya-smuggling incident in the state of California; not even close. In December 2017, a postal customer in Mendocino called the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) after she got stuck behind a man who was trying to ship more than a dozen cardboard boxes to China. She thought he might be attempting to send abalone out of the country but (and please read this in your best Chuck Testa voice) nope, Dudleya. (That man was ultimately sentenced to three years of probation, a $5,000 fine, and 240 hours of community service that probably didn’t involve gardening.)

In April 2018, CDFW officers arrested three people for poaching more than 2,300 plants in Humboldt county. “We have seen a remarkable amount of concern over this from botanists and the public alike,” David Bess, CDFW Deputy Director and Chief of Law Enforcement, said in a statement. “A public tip started this investigation and ultimately uncovered an international conspiracy to poach Dudleya succulents and ship them overseas for profit.”

And in February, a Southern California couple were both sentenced for illegally poaching Dudleya. They were also caught because of an eyewitness, who confronted the pair while they were filling their car with the plants. The unidentified witness took photos of Guanrong Rivera and Jose Luis Rivera, their vehicle, and their license plates, and sent it to the cops. The Riveras were arrested after Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens found 600 Dudleya in their garage.

According to the Monterey Herald, Jose Luis Rivera pled no contest, and was sentenced to 40 days in jail, three years of probation, and a $4,018 fine. Guanrong entered the same plea, and was sentenced to 179 days in jail, three years of probation, and ordered to pay a $9,999.90 fine and make a $10,000 contribution to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both of them were ordered to stay away from every state and national park in California.

Regardless of how popular succulents are in their destination countries, Dudleya are meant to grow on those rugged coastlines and are at their best when people, you know, leave them alone. “Dudleya can live in these very challenging conditions, and they want these challenging conditions. If you want to grow a Dudleya in a pot, you have to turn a pot on its side,” Debra Lee Baldwin, the author of Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, told The New Yorker. “It’s sort of like a wild animal. You can tame it, you can have it in your home and enjoy it, but it’s never going to be as happy and integrated in your life as a pet.”

So maybe go with one of those “What’s Up Succa?” t-shirts instead.