This headline in TimesLIVE caught my eye. We are used to reading about poachers in the Overstrand targeting abalone and, further north, poachers targeting elephants and rhinos. But tiny succulents?

Let’s think for a moment about the motivation behind poaching, which is somehow different from stealing.

Poaching only exists if there is a market for the poached items. The market is created by a willingness to buy. For instance, Chinese buyers of rhino horn and abalone traditionally had the mistaken belief that they had medicinal value, but today the market is driven more by a desire to display wealth.

In the case of SA’s tiny succulents, the driving force is partly wealth display and partly the obsessive nature of collectors – to ‘go one better’.

That’s why it was good news that officials from the police and CapeNature secured the convictions and sentencing of two South Korean men for stealing 60 000 Conophytum plants. They were each fined R2.5 million and sentenced to a (suspended) six years in jail. A further R2.5 million in cash was seized.

A law enforcement source said that it was the fourth conviction of Conophytum poachers in the last five months. Typically, two poachers would pick a piece of veld or a farm and strip it of all its plants.

“Some of the plants the Koreans were caught with are a minimum of 200 years old; some of them were 350 years old. They were here when Jan van Riebeeck landed,” the source said.

According to the source, poachers may arrive on a holiday visa, rent a car and drive to the middle of the Richtersveld or the Knersvlakte, some of SA’s most isolated regions. There they strip the veld of succulents, package the plants and courier them home.

Alternatively, the poachers may buy from a nursery the same species of Conophytum plants that they have collected illegally from the wild. They use the nursery receipt to apply for an export permit and then export the poached specimens together with the cultivated specimens. Even if the packages are opened, what customs officer will be able to tell the difference?

But why go to all the trouble to poach plants in the wild if they can be purchased from a nursery? Let’s take a closer look at Conophytums and why wild specimens are so desirable.

The name Conophytum literally means ‘cone-shaped’, which is a typical shape for these plants. Conophytums are about the most reduced (simplified) plants in existence. They consist of one pair of fused succulent leaves that get absorbed and regenerated every year. They have a very rudimentary filamentous root system, no stem to speak of, and are unable to produce more than one, sometimes two, small flowers a year!

Some species only form one or two heads, whereas others form huge mounds of sometimes many hundreds of heads.

Conophytums are distributed throughout the arid winter-rainfall areas of South Africa and the southern parts of Namibia. I cannot narrow down their exact location as this would give away information to potential poachers.

Conophytums belong to the Aizoaceae Family, which also includes plants like Lithops or ‘stone plants’ that look very similar.

There is a huge trade in these ‘curiosity plants’ among succulent collectors. They display features not seen elsewhere in the plant kingdom – a combination of minutism (very small), mimicry (imitating their surroundings) and extreme succulence (an extraordinary ability to store water). This accounts for much of the variation in form and bizarre shapes that add to their appeal.

So why poach them from the wild when they can easily be grown from cuttings or seed? For one, Conophytums grow very slowly and will take most of a nurseryman’s lifetime to grow into a fine specimen. Not much profit in that. Secondly the huge variety found in the wild cannot be found in nurseries.

Overseas collectors, especially in the Far East, will pay a premium for plants which have been shaped by nature. Avid collectors are driven by ego and the desire to have something unique. They want big plants with ‘character’ that have been exposed to the ravages of climate, years of hardship among barren rocks and being eaten by animals. They have unique forms that cannot be replicated in a nursery, which increases their scarcity value.

Every obsessive collector is looking for that. And so ego and money drive the plundering of another branch of South Africa’s rich botanical heritage.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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