Plant poachers are taking a huge bite out of exotic species in their natural habitats, and law enforcement is starting to bite back.
On January 3, 2015, local officials arrested four men in North Carolina for possession of 970 freshly excavated Venus flytraps. The quartet were the first to be charged under a new state law, passed last August and put into effect in December, elevating the illegal collection of wild Venus flytraps from a misdemeanor punishable by a slap-on-the-wrist fine of a few bucks to a Class H felony punishable by a much larger fine and up to 25 months in prison.
To those used to seeing the archetypal carnivorous plant for sale at home and garden stores and roadside stands, this penalty for basically picking a few plants may seem excessive. But for years, poaching has been driving the Venus flytrap and hundreds of other vulnerable species towards extinction in the wild without much perceptible attention or decisive response from lawmakers or society at large.
The flytrap has been the object of great fascination and desire since it was first noted in its constrained natural habitat—the coastal bogs of the Carolinas, with their humid air and wet, sandy, poor soil—by the region’s royal governor in 1750. Although one of over 600 types of carnivorous plants, most of which trap their pray in simple pitfalls, the flytrap is one of only two (the other being the European waterwheel) with hinged, snapping leaves. When insects land in their sweet-smelling nectar glands, electrical impulses sent through hairs in the trap’s jaws snap shut, squeezing tighter as their prey struggles to escape an onslaught of corrosive, digestive enzymes. This strange mechanism earned it the adulation of Charles Darwin, who once called it the most wonderful plant in the world, but also of collectors like Thomas Jefferson and Empress Josephine of Napoleonic France. Even now the flytrap is a treasured novelty in the gardens of cultivators all over the world.
Taking note of this global fascination, North Carolina has capitalized on the plant’s draw, making it the emblem of the North Carolina Garden Club in 1934 and the state’s official carnivorous plant in 2005. Stores and statues bear the plant’s name and image, especially in Wilmington; the flytrap’s entire lone natural habitat extends in a 50-mile radius around the town.
Yet the lure of economic development seems to trump plant-based Tar Heel pride. The destruction of pines around flytrap sites for hardwood and the clearing away of land for construction has largely eliminated the plants in all but one preserve in South Carolina. In North Carolina, between 70 to 80 percent of the wild populations of flytraps have been swallowed up, leaving only a handful of unsullied habitats. A couple populations near military bases, like Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, are afforded a degree of protection, but most of the remaining pockets are on preserves open to the public, on private land where the owners have the right to dispose of them as they wish, or dangerously close to the tromping feet of the public. Estimates claim there may be just 35,000 wild flytraps left in North Carolina—but these numbers are old and the truth may be even more drastic.
Unfortunately, like many small plants, flytraps have shallow roots that can easily be lifted out of the ground with a spoon by locals eager to make a buck or two by selling these rare goods to a fascinated world.
“A victim of its own popularity,” Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sam D. Hamilton prophetically lamented of the flytrap back in 1999. “Consumer demand fuels the marketplace and contributes to the depletion of wild populations.”
The illicit and devastating harvest of the flytrap and other coveted plants has not received attention on par with that given to other conceptually comparable crimes, like animal poaching, even in this last year of heightened wildlife crimes coverage. This functional invisibility stems from both the relatively small profits netted by plant traffickers and the misleading impression created by mass commercial availability of species that are still at risk in the wild. The same forces result in weak legal protections against what may at first look like petty theft. But existing statutes, though maybe financially proportionate to the crime, ignore the dire environmental dangers that follow the elimination of wild plant populations, dangers that should merit the widespread application of laws like or stronger than North Carolina’s Venus flytrap protection.
There are exceptions to the plant poaching’s low profile, like orchid theft, which may account for up to 10 percent of all such flowers on the market. A single rare orchid can sell for up to $2,000. Yet few will have heard of the American trade in plants like black cohosh, bloodroot, cactus, galax, goldenseal, and moss carpets, much less the black market for extremely endangered plants like South Africa’s cycads. It might be understandable for people not to know about the poaching of plants that they’ve never heard of. But the world of plant poaching encompasses illegal trafficking in materials we encounter everyday, from Echinacea to wild garlic to ginger and even ginseng, which can fetch as much as $800 per pound. Up to 90 percent of America’s lucrative ginseng export trade may originate with poachers and, considering its retail ubiquity, the root is surprisingly considered threatened in 12 of the 19 states where it grows.
Each of these plants (and hundreds of others) feels the threat of poaching in a slightly different way and for slightly different reasons. But of all of these trafficked plant species, flytraps were singled out for special legal treatment because poachers got greedy. In 2013, they jumped from taking a few dozen plants at a time to a thousand in one go. They became bold, robbing flytrap nurseries and nature conservancy gardens. It’s suspected that this jump was fueled by a growing demand for Carnivora, a pricey supplement revered as a natural cancer cure (but not endorsed by any major medical body) and made of crushed flytraps, among other ingredients. In fact, leaps in demand for supplements and homeopathic cures worldwide are driving up the demand for a number of other florae as well, compounding their existing allure and pushing the plant poaching market beyond its already damaging limits.
Theoretically, even before North Carolina’s recent efforts, laws already existed to protect flytraps. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, America does restrict international export of the plants without Fish and Wildlife Service permits attained in advance of travel. And North Carolina does consider the flytrap a species of “special concern.” (Protection advocates are still working to get the flytrap “threatened” status, reserved for emergency situations where less than 20 plant populations remain—a threshold which the flytrap is hovering close to.) These laws help officials nab over a dozen flytrap poachers every year, replant hundreds of confiscated plants, and launch monitoring programs that mark wild plants with tagging powders.
Yet the fines under these old laws were just $10 to $25 for first-time offenders and $200 (with maybe a few days of jail time) for serial or large-scale poachers. The only exception was the case of a man who tried to traffic 14,000 wild flytraps out of the United States and into the Netherlands in 1996. He faced a maximum five-year jail sentence and $250,000 fine. And this was an international trafficking violation, not just a simple act of poaching or the sale of a few dozen plants to American collectors or retailers. More often than not, poachers just keep on poaching, confident that they can evade detection.
Any bids to push for stronger disincentive are usually squashed by the visibility of the flytrap’s huge nursery-grown plant populations. Between two and six million flytraps (depending on fluctuating demand), are grown and sold legally every year, with up to 150,000 of them passing through a single North Carolina farm. Similar nursery populations exist for heavily trafficked plants like orchids and wild ginger, putting plentiful and legally trafficked examples of these at-risk plants in the public eye and making them seem less endangered than they truly are.
Nurseries do help to blunt some of the strain of demand on wild populations and preserve the plant, even if what they grow is a modified version and has no wild habitat. But such programs and low-value markets lead people away from considering environmental health writ large and the deeper repercussions of the loss of wild habitats on other species. The flytrap’s homelands alone house 50 rare, endangered, and interconnected species of plant and animal: Bachman’s sparrows, bladderworts, Cape Fear threetooth land snails, fetterbush, honeycups, pocosins, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and sundews to name a few. To lose wild flytraps is to lose them all: markers of American biodiversity and signs of the environment’s overall well-being.
Yet you’d never know that, looking at how cheaply the life of rare flora are valued, how easy it is to buy these species legally, or how typically hard it is to get any traction against plant poachers.
Few plants have the same high profile as the Venus flytrap, beloved as it may be in North Carolina. Few plants have had such notable poaching incidents make the news. And few plants, not even the mouthy flytrap, can communicate their plight through visible scarcity or impressive financial value. If we want to save these markers of environmental health, we have to go beyond preserving nursery populations and seeds. We have to ramp up monitoring, awareness, and strong deterrent laws.