Poachers, Climate Change Are Endangering Succulents

Greedy collectors and rising temperatures are a dual threat that’s robbing South Africa of rare desert plant species.

A desert scene in the flower season at The Richtersveld.
South Africa’s Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

John Hoeben / Getty Images

From elephant tusks and rhino horns to tiger skins and sea turtle shells, Africa is teeming with illegal treasures that heinous hunters hang on walls and sell on black markets. These days, however, there’s a new generation of poachers on the block, and they’re not interested in prized jungle cats or precious pachyderms. Instead of endangered animals, they’re interested in endangered plants. Specifically, endangered succulents—like those that grow in South Africa’s Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, a national park in the country’s northwest corner that is a favorite destination for illegal plant poachers.

One of the plants that attract poachers to Richtersveld, reports The Guardian, is Aloe pearsonii, which is recognizable by its slender stems and symmetrical rows of vertically aligned leaves. The botanist in charge of Richtersveld’s nursery, Pieter van Wyk, said 85% of the park’s Aloe pearsonii population has disappeared in the last five years. Since many plant species grow in small areas, a poacher could wipe out an entire species in one take.

Poaching endangered plants is illegal but easy to do thanks to the combination of limited law enforcement and large landscapes. It's lucrative too: According to van Wyk’s estimates, plant poaching might be more profitable than the nation’s rhino horn industry. South Africa, for reference, is home to nearly a third of the world’s succulent supply.

It’s not just what is being poached that’s surprising. Also, it’s who is doing the poaching. Or who’s enabling it, at least. Instead of traditional hunters, it might be young “plant moms,” according to Insider, which says millennials’ appetite for house plants and for social media likes—#PlantTikTok has 3.5 billion views on TikTok, it points out—“may be contributing to a black market for rare succulents.”

Another culprit is extreme collectors who are looking for rare specimens. More broadly, the popularity of succulents has been on a steep rise since 2007. A 2017 survey by Garden Center Magazine found succulents made up for 15% of garden center sales in the U.S. midwest.

When it comes to poaching, it's a global problem. Last April, an American citizen connected to a Los Angeles cactus shop was arrested in South Africa for poaching 8,000 specimens of the endangered Conophytum succulent species. Earlier this year, two South Koreans were arrested in South Africa for poaching 60,000 illegally harvested specimens of the same species. In February 2020, Italian officials raided $1.2 million worth of poached cactus plants originating from Chile in “Operation Atacama." The 1,000 rare plants were returned to Chile.

But millennials and collectors are likely only a very small player in a much larger ecosystem. That’s because rare succulents aren’t just being ravaged by poachers: Increasingly, they’re also being ravaged by climate change.

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts an average temperature increase in the Richtersveld region of between 6.1 degrees and 7.5 degrees, with the climate there becoming drier and windier overall. “The hotter it gets, the more water plants need to survive,” Nick Helme, a botanical consultant in Cape Town, tells The Guardian. “But lower rainfall means there’s actually less water in the soil.”

Alongside powerful coastal winds that often blow topsoil and plants into the sea, that spells disaster for species that already are stressed and struggling. Unless swift action is taken to stop both poaching and climate change, the landscape might be the first to go. In the meantime, consumers can avoid conophytum, anacampseros, argyroderma, and euphorbia nesemannii.