Succulent smuggling threatens the world’s most biodiverse arid region

Criminals are stripping South Africa’s Succulent Karoo of its unique plant life to satisfy international demand.

Illegal harvesting to supply the international horticultural market threatens some of South Africa’s endemic succulent species. The plants – sought for their beauty, rarity and often whimsical shapes – face near extinction in the wild.

South Africa is home to three of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. One is the Succulent Karoo, covering 116 000 km 2 in Western and Northern Cape provinces and across the border into Namibia. The Succulent Karoo is the world’s most biodiverse arid region, with many of its species occurring nowhere else on Earth. It houses the planet’s largest concentration of succulents, all of which are uniquely adapted to thrive in aridity.

Succulent Karoo region, South Africa

Succulent Karoo region, South Africa

Source: Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund
(click on the map for the full size image)

Despite its astonishing resilience to the harsh, arid climate, the Succulent Karoo faces several human-related threats. These include climate change, habitat destruction through farming and mining, and the rise in illegal harvesting and trade of wild plants to supply international horticultural markets. While cultivated succulents may be legally traded, wild plants may not be harvested or sold without a permit.

Although Red Listed in South Africa, several of the illegally harvested and traded species were recently added to the global International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Many Succulent Karoo plant species are now classified as endangered and critically endangered – only one step away from extinction in the wild, like the last two remaining northern white rhinos. There are fears that Namibia’s succulents may face a similar fate.

Media outlets increasingly report on suspected illegal harvesters being arrested and thousands of plants seized. Incidents of illegal harvesting began to increase in 2019. Until then, it was mostly foreign nationals, including from Asia and Europe, who illegally harvested plants during field excursions to South Africa. More recently, Saudi Arabians have also been convicted of related crimes.

The Succulent Karoo is the world’s most biodiverse arid region – many species occur nowhere else on Earth

A CapeNature staff member told the ENACT project that many of the arrested foreigners had travelled to South Africa before, and had probably plundered plants in other countries. One South Korean man was arrested in South Africa for being in possession of over 2 018 plants. After his conviction, he was extradited to the United States (US) and convicted of similar offences related to illegally harvested cacti species.

But, as a South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) official told ENACT, ‘then COVID hit and it just sort of exploded.’ Locals became the primary harvesters. This is possibly due to COVID-19 restrictions that limited foreign travel, but almost certainly due to poverty and limited employment opportunities in the Succulent Karoo region. This change also transferred the risk of arrest to the local harvesters.

Countries in Asia, Europe and the US are the main consumer markets for the plants. While more research is needed to fully understand what drives demand for specific species, global demand seems to exceed legal supply which prompts illicit harvesting of wild plants. Scientists suspect that the recent spike in illegal harvesting has been driven by the emerging market in Southeast Asia.

While cultivated succulents may be traded, wild plants cannot be harvested or sold without a permit

Worryingly, illegal harvesting is also driven by demand from serious plant collectors for bigger, and by default older, plants. These would take too long to grow under cultivation and can therefore often only be sourced from the wild. This is evidenced by seized plants estimated to be hundreds of years old.

What is the result of gaping holes in the ground where little wonders used to be? Apart from the immediate loss of endemic species and biodiversity, and the habitat destruction caused at harvesting sites, the truth is that we don’t know. The role of individual species in the ecosystem needs to be examined, and now there are fewer specimens left to study.

It is likely that the impact of losing these plants will only become apparent over time and that the fragile arid ecosystem will change as it is degraded by succulent fortune seekers. When harvesters destroy the soil, they contribute to erosion and break rocks where some of the species grow. These rocks are home to other species of plants, insects and reptiles.

Considering current seizure data, it appears that market trends shift rapidly. According to SANBI, this discovery could show that demand for certain species may have been met by poached stock, and that plant smuggling networks are now seeking new, interesting plants that aren’t widely available on the international market.

Illegal harvesting is driven by demand from collectors for bigger, and by default older, plants

Multiple seizures in South Africa also show that law enforcement agencies recognise the seriousness of the crime. But, as is true of organised crime in general, law enforcement is still on the back foot in reacting to continually evolving trends.

Because illegal harvesting and trade increased exponentially in a short period, South African policies and regulations do not yet effectively protect most of the targeted species. This is also why a timely response is required before more wild populations disappear.

It is encouraging that the seeds have been sown for a holistic, multistakeholder intervention. A group of public and private stakeholders, led by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, SANBI and the World Wide Fund for Nature, developed the National Response Strategy and Action Plan to address the Illegal Trade in South African Succulent Flora – launched in February 2022.

If the strategy succeeds, it could safeguard threatened species and provide income potential through legal trade. It may also serve as a blueprint for preventive, holistic responses to transnational organised crimes that target natural resources – as seen in the multistakeholder strategy being planned to tackle abalone poaching.

Dr Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher, Southern Africa, ENACT, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by the ENACT project.

Image: © Andrea Battisti / Alamy Stock Photo

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Development partners
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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