A Black Market for Rare Succulents Is Emerging Across the Globe

Do you find yourself yearning for rare succulents? With fewer opportunities to explore exotic natural settings, many individuals have amassed plants from around the globe, sparking significant social media buzz and a red-hot marketplace for rare flora. And these plants can fetch hefty sums, sometimes trading for four or even five figures.

As it turns out, this demand has created a thriving international black market that’s put endangered succulents in the hands of poachers. On both sides of the Atlantic, protected plants collectively worth millions have been plucked from their natural habitats and siphoned off to sellers who pass them onto buyers across North America, Europe, and Asia, uprooting ecosystems in the process.

In South Africa, where, according to Business Insider, nearly a third of the world’s succulent supply can be found, the poaching problem is especially pronounced, having led to multiple high-profile busts. South Korean poachers were caught in Cape Town with 60,000 illegally harvested Conophytum succulents. Similarly, an American connected to Los Angeles-based plant seller Never Enough Cactus took the business’s name a bit too literally, absconding with 8,000 Conophytums from South Africa. (The individual received a two-year jail sentence and a ban from re-entering the African nation.) Some poachers now outsource the illegal activity to locals, sharing GPS coordinates of the plants they want to ship around the globe.

The problem is not exclusive to one country, however. Early last year “Operation Atacama” saw more than 1,000 rare cactuses rescued from Italy and eventually returned to Chile. Their black market worth was estimated at $1.2 million upon their seizure in February 2020—a figure that may be even higher now.

Beyond the issue of ill-gotten profits, the removal of century-old succulents can upset delicate ecosystems, even threatening some species with extinction. (Many are native to hyper-specific habitats, some of which are no more than a few square miles.) At a time when more than 30% of the world’s nearly 1,500 species of cactus are under threat of disappearing forever, the actions of succulent poachers threaten to rob the planet of its biodiversity.

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Though the financial temptations may be great for poachers in a thriving plant market, authorities remain vigilant, hoping to both prevent and prosecute the practice. As The New York Times notes, certain influential collectors are also pushing for more transparency in cactus sourcing, which could eventually involve clearer industry ethical standards akin to how fair trade or organic food gets labelled.

Budding plant enthusiasts can rest assured many succulents in the marketplace are acquired legally and ethically—but wade deep enough into the world of ultra-rare succulents, and sketchy specimens from Chile and South Africa might start to crop up.

“Many of the succulents currently experiencing collecting pressure over the world are desired by very passionate collectors—these are plants that require some level of expertise and care to keep alive outside their natural habitats,” University of Alabama political ecology professor Jared Margulies told Business Insider. “They are much less commonly ending up on a casual hobbyist’s windowsill.” 

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