Plant poaching is on the rise. What can we do?

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    Ecological Restoration
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Plant poaching appears to be on the rise. The combination of COVID-related impacts on rural livelihoods, access to markets via social media platforms and a huge global increase in gardening as a hobby due to lockdown has resulted in a surge in illegal harvesting of plants from the wild. BGCI was alerted to this problem by one of our members in the US who had been contacted by a trader in succulent plants on Instagram, who was advertising wild collected succulent plants from Southern Africa. A quick look at his photos showed that they included rare and threatened species. However, when we contacted our friends at the South African National Biodiversity Institute to ask if we could help in shutting the site down (it has since disappeared), it became clear that this has become a huge problem. Their response was as follows:

‘Poaching of South Africa’s succulent plants and caudiforme species has been escalating exponentially since March 2019 all facilitated through social media platforms and made worse by the COVID pandemic as the poaching has moved from international visitors doing the poaching themselves to these same buyers now soliciting from local South Africans. The sad part is that so many South African’s living in rural areas have no way to make an income and so now many individuals who have a phone and an Instagram or Facebook account are digging out plants and advertising them even if they do not have a buyer lined up. We have hundreds of thousands of plants being confiscated by our law enforcers on a monthly basis. SANBI’s botanical gardens are overflowing with confiscated material we have no place or facilities to house; just as an example 10 000 plants were received this last Friday.  Some species in the genus Conophytum have likely been poached to extinction this past January.’

So, what can we in botanic gardens do about this? One obvious response is to raise awareness amongst our visitors of the damage caused by buying plants from unsustainable sources, including through social media platforms. This would be a good start in helping to ensure that our visitors don’t become part of the problem. However, it might be argued that alerting visitors to the possibility of purchasing wild collected material online might exacerbate the problem. Personally, I think this is unlikely given that most people who visit botanic gardens will want to do the right thing (my faith in human nature is largely intact even after 57 years). Nevertheless, I think we would need to be careful about not publicising this too widely. But what about those who don’t care or those that actively seek out this kind of material?

Looking at the supply chain, and starting with rural communities, we have some excellent examples of botanic garden led projects where communities are trained in the propagation and marketing of marketable horticultural species. A good example is the restoration and sustainable harvesting of Golden Camellia (Camellia nitidissima) in Guangxi, China. The advantages associated with this kind of approach is that local communities benefit. However, this isn’t possible (or affordable) for all species.

Regarding the social media platforms that facilitate the trade, we can alert Facebook, Instagram and others to sites that advertise illegally collected plants. TRAFFIC are a useful intermediary for this. Our professional community is the only sector with the expertise to monitor such sites but I’m not aware of anyone who actively or systematically does this. Please do get in touch if this is something that you do regularly. Citizen science sites can also compound the problem, and the South African authorities have worked with iNaturalist to remove locality information for threatened species because criminals were using the information to find rare species. It is surely a good idea to do this in other countries too.

For the buyers looking for rare plants, I think it is essential that we work with amateur plant specialist societies to support their efforts to conserve plant species in situ and ex situ, and to reinforce the message that illegal collecting and acquisition is unacceptable. We also need to find ways in which such plants can be legitimately sourced. The Wollemi Pine story is an example of a conservation strategy that included flooding the horticultural market with seedlings so that the few remaining trees wouldn’t attract unscrupulous collectors. The result is that Wollemia  is readily available to purchase, and the natural populations are unmolested. Could this approach be scaled up? Botanic gardens are repositories for a lot of rare and threatened plant material and yet the plants you buy in botanic garden shops are most often outsourced specimens available from any garden centre. Of course any financial transaction would need to be Nagoya compliant – ideally with proceeds going back to the country of origin – but surely this would be possible? The opportunity to buy rare plants would surely bring in more visitors and, given that the market for cycads, succulents and orchids is largely in the north and the origins of these species are mainly in the south, don’t we have a responsibility to work together to protect plants in the wild? I suspect that the reason we don’t do this at scale is because it is currently too difficult to do.

You may have seen BGCI’s recent survey on (non-commercial) plant material exchange. A third of botanic garden respondents reported a decline in exchange of material over recent years; furthermore, 83% of respondents said the main problem was that plant material exchange had become too bureaucratic, and that this would have negative impacts on plant conservation. In spite of this, 65% of correspondents felt that access to plant material should be regulated, and 47% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing is a good opportunity for facilitated plant material exchange.’ We need to make our collections work harder for conservation be it to support species recovery in situ or taking pressure off wild populations by bulking them up and making them available to hobbyists and gardeners. Ideas welcome.

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