From Succulents To Bugs: Exploring Wildlife Crime

16:52 minutes

The world of science is surprisingly ripe with true crime stories.

Consider case number one: Deep in South Africa’s Northern Cape, a rare and tiny succulent grows: the Conophytum. Demand for succulents skyrocketed during the pandemic, as more and more people got into the plant keeping hobby. But these succulents only grow in very specific conditions, and poachers will go to great lengths to nab them. The story is the subject of a recent investigation published in National Geographic.

looking top down on a garden bed of dozens of roundish bulby succulents
The pink “lips” of Conophytum pagae, pictured both at far left and far right, are one feature that makes the plant popular among succulent collectors. Conophytum obcordellum, shown in the center, is targeted for its unusual patterns of dots and stripes. Credit: Sydelle Willow Smith
a close up shot of a white man wearing glasses and a hat at ground level peering under a marbled rock
Pieter Schreuder, a farmer in Northern Cape province, examines well-camouflaged Conophytum, the two greenish protrusions under his nose. By August 2021, 13 alleged poachers had been arrested for stealing conos from the Schreuders’ 25,000-acre farm. He says monitoring for poachers is now “a 24-hour job.” Credit: Sydelle Willow Smith

Or case two: It’s 2018, and a theft has occurred at the Philadelphia Insectarium, a bug museum and education center. In a daring daylight raid, thousands of creatures were taken from the insectarium—right under the nose of the CEO. No one has ever been charged with a crime.

This bizarre big story quickly made the rounds of local and national news, which left out the most interesting details, including a surprise ending. The new documentary series “Bug Out” takes us through the twists and turns of this story, from retracing the events of the day of the heist, to a deep look at the illegal international insect trade. The four episodes of “Bug Out” are available to watch now on IMDB TV and Prime Video. 

Joining Ira to chat about these wildlife true crime stories are Dina Fine Maron, senior wildlife crime reporter for National Geographic and Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of “Bug Out.” 

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Segment Guests

Dina Fine Maron

Dina Fine Maron is Senior Wildlife Crime Reporter at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

Ben Feldman

Ben Feldman is the Director and Executive Producer of “Bug Out.” He’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

The stories you are about to hear are true. No names have been changed.

On this day 32 years ago, one of the most notorious art heists in history took place. In the early hours of March 18, 1990, 18 works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The case remains unsolved.

Art museums are not the only place where high-stakes heists take place. Deep in South Africa’s Northern Cape grows a tiny and rare succulent, the Conophytum.

Demand for succulents skyrocketed during the pandemic as more and more people got into the plant-keeping hobby. But those succulents only grow in very specific conditions, and poachers will go to great lengths to nab them.

Here to explain this robbery is Dina Fine Marin, senior wildlife crime reporter for National Geographic, based in Washington DC. She is definitely not Joe Friday.

Welcome back to the show.

DINA FINE MARON: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

So you traveled to South Africa to report this story. Where exactly do these succulents grow?

DINA FINE MARON: Yeah, these succulents are extremely rare. They only grow in two provinces in South Africa, the Northern Cape and the Western Cape, and they also grow in Namibia.

But, as you mentioned, they’re just extremely, extremely rare plants. There are about 100 species of Conophytum, but some of them are so rare they grow in just the equivalent of a couple of football fields, or they grow on the edge of one cliff.

So if you are a collector and you are taking these from the wild, you could potentially take and wipe out the entire wild population.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, no kidding. What do they look like?

DINA FINE MARON: It’s interesting. They are such tiny, tiny plants. They look a little bit like a button or a dumpling. Some of them aren’t bigger than a thumbnail.

These are so, so small that poachers literally use brooms to sweep for them. I saw the bristle marks in South Africa in the dirt. They camouflage perfectly with lichen and rocks around them, which is, in theory, great for their survival, but some of these plants are really striking. Again, they’re very tiny, so you really have to be searching for them.

But they might have polka dots or stripes. They can flower in white and pink and red. But for most of the year, they’re just these tiny greenish-brown blobs. They have a little sun sheath around them to keep the sun from really hurting them.

So to someone who’s not a big hobbyist, they might not look like much.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, I am a plant guy, and I have had succulents over the years, but I can’t imagine what there is about the Cono that make them such in high demand.

DINA FINE MARON: Well, definitely one of the things is that they are so rare. My understanding is that in itself is very alluring, and the idea that they can be really striking. And they’re so miniature, right? So if you wanted them for your windowsill for your household, they would be unique and beautiful in their miniature status.

What brought me to the story initially was tips from plant hobbyists, who told me that during the pandemic, international demand for ornamental plants exploded, and this craze, of course, really hurt South Africa, where rare succulents like these Conophytums grow.

And the poachers that are coming in and stealing these plants are getting these demands primarily from China, from Japan, and from South Korea.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, you quote a detective in your story, who says that these rare plants are worth more than heroin. They’re worth more than heroin, by weight? That’s astounding.

DINA FINE MARON: Yeah, it is a really striking thing. These sales are occurring online, and to someone that wants them, they’re willing to pay top dollar.

We don’t typically in National Geographic talk about the actual price, because we don’t want to help fuel demand, but the range for some of these plants can be quite significant, into the thousands.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know that succulents grow very slowly. Does that make conserving these plants, then, really difficult?

DINA FINE MARON: Great question. And the answer is yes.

These plants can take years to flower. And if you want a significant-sized plant, and by significant, I mean, maybe walnut sized, or even the size of my fist, that will take dozens of years, maybe 100. So the plants that are being dug up might be 100 years old and still quite small, quite, quite small. And those are the ones that collectors want, because they’re bigger.

Now Conophytum, some of them do grow in greenhouses in captivity. You can find them here in the United States in greenhouses, but those ones are teeny tiny. Those are like the size of a thumbnail or a couple of fingers put together. So much, much, much smaller.

IRA FLATOW: I’m trying to think of– every time you have a theft, you have to have somebody who gets the plants and resells them, but you have someone on the ground, who actually does the stealing. I guess, who are they?

DINA FINE MARON: Yeah, what’s interesting– one of the things that I really found fascinating about this story, is Conophytum poaching, at a small scale, was not new. Foreigners would come into South Africa and collect these plants for years. And there were arrests that took place, but the crime is relatively low-scale.

But during the pandemic when there were lockdowns that made it very difficult to travel, they started recruiting local poachers in South Africa to do the work. And so there would be middlemen that were in the cities in South Africa and there would be the buyers in South Korea or in China contacting these locals. And the locals are the ones, of course, that are being caught for the crime, but they’re not the ones that are getting top dollar for the plants.

IRA FLATOW: So people have been arrested and fined for poaching, or no?

DINA FINE MARON: Well, the reality is that arrests are happening, but the judicial system for this kind of crime moves incredibly slowly.

So there’s actually been a handful of prosecutions so far, even though, as I discuss in the story, some of these poachers are showing up at individual farms where these plants happen to grow– we’re talking big sheep farms that are 25,000, 50,000 acres– showing up multiple times a week to try to find these plants. But the few cases that have made it to prosecution, they were just fines at a couple dollars, even though, by law, the crime could hold a punishment as large as 10 years in prison.

What’s interesting is there is a double-standard for foreigners that come in and commit these crimes. In 2019, four Chinese poachers were fined almost $10,000 each for the crime. And in another case, two South Korean nationals were each fined about $160,000 for stealing Conos– Conos is the nickname for Conophytum in Western Cape– and one was deported , and the other was actually extradited to California, because he and associates were charged with stealing succulents from state parks along the northern coast of that state.

So again, not Conophytum, a different kind of succulent, but showing just this huge international demand, right, that they were stealing these plants, again, to be sold back in South Korea. So, succulents are really popular.

IRA FLATOW: Any sense of what the future for Cono succulents could look like? I mean, they must be, as you say, popular enough that people really want them, and greenhouse-grown Conos are gaining in popularity. Might it help the wild ones, if you can grow them in the greenhouse?

DINA FINE MARON: Yeah, there’s a lot of discussion about that exact question, but one of the concerns is, well, there are already Conophytums grown in captivity in South Korea, in China, in the United States. But still, this poaching demand exists because people want the big plants, the ones that take a really long time to grow.

And when you’re growing it in a greenhouse, people typically sell off plants maybe a year or a couple of years in, after you grow them in a greenhouse, so there’s still the small plants, so it’s a tough nut to crack.

But South Africa is exploring the idea of, would that be part of the solution? Could part of the solution be growing them in captivity, and also making sure that there are more opportunities for alternative livelihoods in this area, South Africa, around nature-based tourism and other things, so that people wouldn’t be as desperate for cash to turn to these kinds of crimes. But it’s a really difficult question.

IRA FLATOW: You’re a wildlife crime reporter. Where does the poaching of plants rank in wildlife poaching of other things or animals?

DINA FINE MARON: It’s interesting. I’ve been in the wildlife crime reporting space for a few years now, and I’ve just been aghast at the number and variety of things that people really want.

I’ve written about leech smuggling, like medical leeches. I’ve written about songbird issues. I’ve written about elephant tusks, of course. And, just, there’s such variety. Of course the big-ticket items are the ones that you might hear about, like rhino horn, of course.

But where the plants fall is a little difficult to say, because when you are really categorizing illegal activity, there isn’t good tracking, as you would suspect. But this is a high value item, so it’s growing, and it’s getting a lot of attention.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for giving us your attention, Dina.


IRA FLATOW: Dina Fine Maron, a senior wildlife crime reporter for National Geographic, based in Washington, DC.

And now, our second crime story, which leads us to the underground world of the insect trade. It’s 2018, the site of a theft at the Philadelphia Insectarium, that’s a bug museum and education center.

In a daring daylight raid, thousands of creatures were taken from the insectarium right under the nose of the CEO. No one has ever been charged with a crime. This bizarre, big story quickly made the rounds of local and national news, which left out the most interesting details, including a surprise ending. Not anymore.

A new documentary series, Bug Out, takes us through the twists and turns of the story, from retracing the events of the day of the heist, to a deep look at the illegal international insect trade. The four episode docuseries is available to watch now on IMDb TV and Prime Video.

Joining me to talk about it is Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of Bug Out, based in New York. Welcome to Science Friday.

BEN FELDMAN: Hey, thanks so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Well, this is a great story. Let’s start with the basics. When this news broke in 2018, tell us how many insects were said to have been stolen?

BEN FELDMAN: Yeah, so the headline said that it was 7,000 live insects stolen, which figured to be about $50,000 worth of bugs, which was obviously a pretty captivating headline. And there was also, initially, a good amount of commotion about it, because a lot of these insects that were stolen were highly venomous. So the public was definitely a little freaked out here in Philly

IRA FLATOW: I can imagine. Which bugs were actually taken?

BEN FELDMAN: It was a wide spectrum, everything from roach colonies to venomous spiders, including tarantulas and this six-eyed sand spider, which really ended up getting a lot of the spotlight, because if it bites you, it has the ability to decay, to rot, like 30% of your body around where it bites.

But there were beetles and spiders and mantids, and roaches, and a whole– yeah, pretty wide gamut of bugs taken.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. I mean, the scene of the crime originally in the documentary, as I say is the Philadelphia Insectarium robbery, but you also get into a lot of detail about the bug-keeping hobby. And how big is this hobby?

BEN FELDMAN: Yeah, so for me, I mean, that was one of the most enjoyable things to discover by making this film is, there’s this very prevalent and widespread world out there of bug collectors. And this is an enormous hobby around the world, but also in the US.

And I would venture that within 75 miles of wherever you are listening, in the next couple of weeks, there’s going to be an insect fair, you know, at some high school gym or some community center, where people that are passionate in this hobby are going to be meeting up and buying and selling bugs, and talking about breeding strategies of different insects. And people are really into this.

IRA FLATOW: In case you’ve just joined us, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of Bug Out.

Well, if people are buying and selling bugs, this must be a big trade. There must be a big trade in bugs, right?

BEN FELDMAN: It’s definitely a big trade. You know, different parts of the world, different species are more popular. So I found out in Western Europe, the walking sticks are very popular to keep as pets. In a lot of Asia, beetles are very prominent.

Here in the US, there was definitely a tarantula craze. I think that that is still popular, but it’s probably died down a bit from the 90s, when we saw them in, like, Home Alone, you know, the brother has a tarantula. That was really kind of a popular thing in the US for a while.

IRA FLATOW: Whenever there is a legal trade, there’s always an illegal, black market trade, and it turns out, there is one in the bug industry, too, right?

BEN FELDMAN: There is definitely an illicit trade in the insect hobby, as it’s called. And that was a really fascinating thing to get some insight into. And so we got to interview different US Fish and Wildlife agents and USDA agents who have worked undercover cases to bust these illegal bug traders. And yeah, there’s definitely a pretty vibrant and pretty lucrative illegal bug trade.

IRA FLATOW: And is this where people actually go out into the wild and net the bugs and sell them illegally back home, or wherever they can sell them?

BEN FELDMAN: That’s definitely partly how it’s done. So in the show, we get to spend some time in Australia with his father-son duo who are big bug sellers and collectors, and they travel the globe and find pretty rare species, and pay locals, pay kids to go out and get these species, and then pack them into suitcases and fly them to Tokyo or other parts of the world and sell these things for enormous markups. I mean, just insane prices.

And then we also go to Mexico and spend some time with Rodrigo, who’s down there trying to fight the illegal trade of tarantulas, in particular. And so here, these, like, wildlife cartels are paying farmers pennies to collect these pretty rare tarantulas on their property– there a lot of them that are protected– and then they act as a middleman and sell these throughout the world, and the US is definitely a big market for those Mexican tarantulas.

IRA FLATOW: There is a really good twist and turn in this. I don’t want to give anything away. And, in fact, no arrests have been made for this Philadelphia Insectarium heist. Do you think you made a good case in this documentary for some kind of charges to be made?

BEN FELDMAN: It’ll be interesting, for sure, to see what happens. I mean, no arrests have been made, but, as the detective on the Philadelphia Police Department says, you know, he knows what happens. But he says it’s a different thing, what you know and what you can prove, and what you can take to a judge.

So I certainly feel like we uncovered a lot here, and we were really able to get interviews from everyone that’s a part of this story, and then get documents through FOIA requests and other things, and really tell the whole story and put everything out there for the audience to decide what happened here.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a great story. It’s a great story, Ben. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today and talk about it.

BEN FELDMAN: Yeah, thank you so much. It’s great to be here, and, yeah, I appreciate your interest in the story.

IRA FLATOW: Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of Bug Out, based in New York. And you can watch Bug Out for free on IMDb TV and Amazon Prime.

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