Popular succulents are being stolen from California parks and sold on the black market

USA

The men traveled Highway 101 in budget rental cars, stopping at remote state parks with stunning vistas as they snaked their way along the Northern California coast. To a casual observer, Byungsu Kim, 44, Youngin Back, 45, and Bong Jun Kim, 44, might have seemed like yet another group of road-tripping tourists on the famously scenic highway, marveling at the towering redwoods and the waves crashing against dizzying bluffs.

But wildlife detectives who had been tracking the three South Korean nationals since they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2018 noticed that their rented minivan was full of boxes and rubber totes – not the typical gear for a week-long vacation. The men chatted on handheld radios as they explored the parks, and always seemed to wear bulky backpacks. Watching from a distance, wardens saw what they were stuffing inside: Dudleya succulents, which have spiky blue-green leaves immediately recognizable to anyone on Pinterest and Instagram.

On Friday, the three men were charged with stealing more than $600,000 worth of wild succulents from public lands and attempting to smuggle them into Asia, where a lucrative black market for the trendy houseplants is flourishing. The bust, which led to the seizure of more than 3,700 plants, was part of a larger crackdown on succulent poachers who are believed to be part of international smuggling rings. Overseas, the plants retail for as much as $50 each, according to wildlife officials, and are a highly prized consumer good among the growing middle class.

“Right now these plants are a boom in Korea, China and Japan,” Patrick Freeling, a game warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Guardian last year. “It’s huge among domestic housewives. It’s a status thing.”

Frequently found in third-wave coffee shops, on top of wedding cakes or alongside mid-century modern furniture in millennial-chic apartments, succulents are ubiquitous enough to be considered a design cliche. But rather than dying down, the succulent craze has gone global, with potentially disastrous effects. According to the Guardian, the plants have become so popular in Korea and China that they are sold in stores the size of multiple basketball courts.

Dudleya, a genus encompassing dozens of species native to the West Coast, plays a crucial role in the delicate ecosystems of California’s wind-battered cliffs, where they help to fight erosion. Some of those species are considered threatened or endangered, and the population has recently been devastated by wildfires. Now, experts worry that the rarest types of Dudleya could be driven to extinction if poachers keep ripping out thousands at a time.

Though Dudleya can be grown in nurseries, they take years or even decades to mature, and commercial growers have struggled to keep up as succulent mania spreads from South Korea to China. Kang Suk-Jung, who owns a nursery in Hojawon, South Korea, told NPR last year that once Chinese customers started buying succulents, “even tens of thousands of plants would not meet the demand.” Besides, he said, it was tough to replicate the look of the most sought-after species.

“Those plants had survived in their natural habitats for decades through rain and wind,” he said. “That’s what makes them beautiful. You can’t grow succulents like them with artificial measures.”

Until December 2017, authorities had no idea that thousands of succulents were being stolen from state parks. Then, a frustrated postal customer called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s hotline with an anonymous tip. The woman had grown exasperated while waiting to mail a Christmas package at the tiny post office in Mendocino, Calif., the Mercury News reported. A man ahead of her was shipping 60 packages to China, and the line snaked outside the door. Curious, she asked what was in the boxes.

“Shhhh, something very valuable,” the man responded, putting one finger to his lips.

“Where did you get them?” the woman asked. The man pointed to the ocean.

Freeling, the game warden who received the tip, asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection to X-ray the packages. The tipster had suspected that the boxes held abalone, a type of edible sea snail often illegally harvested by divers in Northern California. Instead, they turned out to contain dozens of succulents, he told NPR. That on its own wasn’t necessarily illegal, but Freeling had a hunch he had stumbled onto something bigger. Sure enough, within a month, he got a call about a suspicious man wandering the cliffs with a backpack. It was the same man he had seen on surveillance footage from the Mendocino post office, and the pack was stuffed with succulents.

“I confronted him and asked what he was doing, and he said it was for his garden. He had another person as a lookout,” Freeling told the South China Morning Post’s magazine. “This was my first time dealing with plant poaching and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t search his vehicle for more plants. I believe now that there were more.”