The Dirt on the Illegal Plant Trade

27:05 minutes

When you think of the illegal wildlife trade, markets filled with poached rhino horns and elephant ivory might come to mind, but the commercial trade in illegal and rare plants is often overlooked. Johnny Randall, from the North Carolina Botanical Garden, describes how poachers are decimating wild venus flytrap and American ginseng populations, and ecologist Patrick Shirey discusses how eBay and online platforms have affected the trade and movement of threatened and endangered plants. Plus, Marc Hachadourian, a curator at the New York Botanical Garden, takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Garden’s “CITES rescue center,” which rehabilitates illegally trafficked orchids, succulents, and other plants. Scroll down for a slideshow.

  • Paphiopedilum sp. (Vietnam). This plant came from a CITES seizure in 2009, and is going to flower for the first time after six years of rehabilitation and cultivation at the New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Becky Fogel

  • Dendrobium thrysiflorum. This plant was part of a CITES seizure in 1977 of shipped plants from India. It’s now a thriving specimen in a 12” pot and a regular bloomer in the Garden’s collections. Photo by Becky Fogel

  • Phalaenopsis schilleriana. A CITES seizure from 2005, this Filipino plant should bloom this-coming spring. Photo by Becky Fogel

  • Euphorbia decaryi. This Madagascan plant was part of another CITES seizure. It’s now a thriving specimen in the botanical collections. Photo by Becky Fogel

  • Marc Hachadorian, who oversees the CITES Rescue Center Program for the New York Botanical Garden, and Alexa Lim, associate producer for Science Friday, walk through the Nolen Greenhouses. Photo by Becky Fogel

Segment Guests

Patrick Shirey

Patrick Shirey is an ecologist and Project Manager at R.A. Smith National, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Marc Hachadourian

Marc Hachadourian is the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections and the curator of the orchid collection at the
New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, New York.

Johnny Randall

Johnny Randall is the Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

When you’re flying back from a trip overseas, one of the last things you do before a landing is fill out those little blue customs forms. And one of the things you have to declare is any plants, seeds, fruits, or vegetables, and most of us don’t check that box. But each year, the Fish and Wildlife Service ceases thousands of undocumented plants. Some might just be missing the proper paperwork, but others are illegally smuggled, secretly slipped into the bottom of suitcases or checked in under false names. They’re confiscated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. A few of these errant plants find their way into CITES rescue centers across the country. One of these centers is located behind closed doors at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Sci Fri producers Alexa Lim and Becky Fogel got a tour from Marc Hachadourian, the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections at the garden.

MARC HACHADOURIAN: Well, right now we’re in the behind the scenes production facility in which we grow all of the plants for the gardens and grounds and exhibitions. Some of the CITES Rescue Center Program plants are in this location here. Including most recently a couple years ago, a group of plants that were being shipped illegally from Vietnam. And this group of slipper orchids arrive sort of crammed in a box, near death, not looking too good when you first see them; they’re now growing, and thriving, and even flowering within our glass house collections.

Shipments can range in size from a single plant, to our largest CITES shipment, which was over 1,500 plants. If you were actually to see the plants when they first arrived, as we unpacked these plants, it just seemed endless that you took out more and there was even another layer, and another layer, and another layer. The plants themselves were bare root, really stuff and tortured. And there was even one specimen, a plant called Grammatophyllums speciosum, which is one of the world’s largest orchids, that you can actually see in the root ball in the center this large, tight, dense massive root where it was cut and then peeled off the tree it was growing on.

We’ve now walked into a different section of the greenhouse. This is our arid collections where we grow all of our cati and succulent specimens. Very different, as you might imagine, from the orchid house. It’s much drier and brighter in here. What looks like a scaly bowling ball with leaves or a pineapple that you probably wouldn’t want to eat here is actually a Cycade. Cycades are a group of prehistoric plants that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and they’re very popular with collectors. And this is a group a Cycades that were being smuggled in from South Africa. And what’s sometimes torturous about Cycades is that, many times when they come in, they don’t have a single leaf on them, is just this large woody stem, they can sit for almost two years before they put out any new leaves, so you don’t really know if it’s alive or dead for quite awhile. They arrive with no identification. But now that they’ve started to leave out, we’ll be able to identify them down to the species they are. The species that we theorize that they might be are species that are very, very rare in the wild and are very threatened due to over collecting.

I realize that a lot of the plants that are coming here really are better off in the wild. When you have 7,000 plants to take care of and a few more mouths to feed, so to speak, it really is a lot of work to make sure we keep these plants going, because there is a lot of responsibility. Just as there as there would be responsibility taking care of an endangered animal, the same thing goes with an endangered plant.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That was Marc Hachadourian, the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections, showing our Sci Fri producers around the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. You can see photos of those plants on our website at sciencefriday.com/plantpoaching.

Overseas orchid hunters scouring the cliffs of Vietnam might be the scene that comes to mind when you think of plant poaching, but the illegal plant trade happens right here in the US, too, in the blogs of the Carolinas to palm forests of Hawaii. This January, North Carolina passed a law that made it a felony to poach wild Venus Fly Traps. My next guest is here to tell us about that. Johnny Randall is the director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.

Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHNNY RANDALL: It’s great to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And if you’ve come across an endangered plant for sale, you’ve got a plant in your collection that you’re just not sure about, give us a call. Our number’s 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. If you’re on Twitter, you can tweet us at Sci Fri.

So, Johnny Randall, store bought Venus flytraps are often the first plant you get as a kid. Can you describe where these wild types grow that may be a little different?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, the plants are essentially the same. But, of course, the wild types are ones that grow in specialized habitats, and a very limited distribution here in North Carolina.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Limited distribution. How limited?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, the Venus flytrap range is about 90 miles circumference of Wilmington, North Carolina, on the coast.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So tell us about these people who poach these wild Venus flytraps. What do they do; just dig them out of the ground?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Yep. They just dig them right out. You can dig out probably many hundreds in an hour. But the folks who are poaching these from the wild are just trying to make a few extra dollars. The poached Venus flytraps might go for $0.25 apiece. But it’s really the dealers that are driving this and getting these folks to make these harvests

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s one of the things about this story that’s fascinated me. It’s that these plants, which are endangered, are going for $0.25 or $0.50 apiece. You’d think that maybe they would have a much higher price tag. Why are people going to all this trouble to dig up something that’s endangered, and also getting them so little money?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, we’re talking about people who are probably having hard times, the locals down on the coast of North Carolina. So they may dig up a plant for $0.25 and sell it for that, but then the dealer’s turning around and selling it for $10.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Why exactly would someone want a wild Venus flytraps? How different are they, if at all, from the ones that you can buy legally in the store?

JOHNNY RANDALL: They’re absolutely no different. So I think the thing that encourages the dealers to get folks to dig them up is the fact that they are slow to germinate and grow. So it may take two or three years to get a plant for sale if you’re growing it from seed. But most of them are grown through either root cuttings or tissue culture, which also is slow, but a perfectly legitimate process.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now it’s just been a year or so since the law passed in North Carolina. Are you seeing any impact on this poaching? Do you think that the law is actually going to stop anybody?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, it’s hard to tell. Only one group of people have been charged so far. It was this past January. And I’m not certain what the outcome of their trial was, if they were actually convicted of this felony or not.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there other plants you’re seeing that are finding their way into the trade, other plants that people are poaching other than these Venus flytraps?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, carnivorous plants in general have been poached for decades. So North Carolina, the coast of North Carolina, is a global hot spot for carnivorous plant diversity, particularly with the Venus flytrap. But the ones that are most often poached are the pitcher plants, and many of those are very rare and endangered, and are becoming even more so. And in our mountains is ginseng harvest, which is, again, something that is permitted, but many people go out and do illegal harvests or poaching.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking with Johnny Randall about illegal plant poaching. If you want to call us, 844-724-8255, or 844-SCI-TALK.

Michelle is calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Hello there, Michelle. You’re on Science Friday.

MICHELLE: Hi, John. Thanks for having me.


MICHELLE: I am afraid that I might have accidentally actually poached some of these Venus flytraps. They were attached to moss that I took from the side of our lake and brought inside and low dish this spring just to put on the table for my mom to see. And now I’m thinking I might be in trouble, but they looked like little carnivorous Venus flytraps that were in the moss.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And this is in Michigan?

MICHELLE: This is in Michigan, yes. In the Upper Peninsula.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Johnny Randall, what do you say to Michelle?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, I think that they could occur that far north, but someone had to have planted it there. You might want to take another look at that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, so perhaps these are Venus flytraps that found their way up to Michigan through some other means? Somebody planted them in the forest first?

JOHNNY RANDALL: That’s right. And that’s probably unlikely. But, actually, Venus flytrap has been successfully transplanted to the New Jersey pine barren, and it is growing there. But that would not be considered a wild population.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, and for Michelle, and anybody else who might call us up, Johnny, what should someone do if they maybe find a plant that they’re not sure maybe should even be in their area or maybe they suspect might be suspicious, is there some place they can turn?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Oh, absolutely. Your friendly neighborhood botanical garden, and so that’s where I would recommend.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Michelle, thanks so much for the phone call.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I hope that helps.

The internet, of course, has opened up plant poaching to a much wider audience. I want to bring out another guest who’s looked into this. Patrick Shirey is an ecologist and project managers at RA Smith National in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Patrick, welcome to Science Friday.

PATRICK SHIREY: Thank you, John. As a fellow Pittsburgher, happy to join you today.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Always good to hear from the Steel City. You put out a study a few years ago the looked at eBay as a marketplace for endangered plants. What did you find?

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. Not just eBay, but the internet in general. And what we did was we asked how many US listed plants can be purchased online. So these are threatened and endangered plants listed under the US Endangered Species Act. And at the time we found there were over 50 sellers offering 44 plant species illegally, with 49 species total. And even since that study, found additional plant species being offered, not just on online auction websites, but through nursery websites and other online means.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I’m a little unclear. Is it illegal to sell them online or not?

PATRICK SHIREY: It is in some cases and it isn’t in others. So it’s illegal if you sell it online between one state and another. So the buyer is in one state and the seller is in a different state if the seller doesn’t have a permit, and the permit costs $100 to get and lasts five years. In some cases, many cases, there weren’t permits acquired for these endangered plant species being offered for sale online.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So obviously a lot of sites that are out there, was it pretty easy to buy these type of plants?

PATRICK SHIREY: It would be very easy to buy certain species of plants, including several cacti, and carnivorous plants, and other rare plants, like the palms in Hawaii that you mentioned at the start of the show.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. Tell us a bit more about those, and maybe some of the other planets that you’ve found that surprised you that were for sale.

PATRICK SHIREY: Well, in Hawaii there’s been some encouragement of planting native plants, but these have also ended up in the international and interstate commercial trade. One of these plants, the Loulu Palm, which is Pritchardia viscosa, there only four left in the wild, and there’s been noted poaching and vandalism of the wild population over the years. And this is one plant that the starting auction price for this was $350 for these individual plants.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. So that brings a pretty nice price tag.

I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

There are of course cultivated versions of endangered plants, Patrick, that are fine to buy. How do you know if sellers who are doing this online are buying wilder cultivated plants?

PATRICK SHIREY: We don’t know. And that is one of the challenges for enforcement, John. Another example like the Venus flytrap is the star cactus in southern Texas northern Mexico, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. And the star cactus has been available in cultivation since the 1930s, but it also overlaps with the peyote, and it’s threatened with collection of wild populations. Even though tens of thousands of plants are available in commercial trade, the few thousand left in the wild are threatened with poaching.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It seems as though, if the government really wanted to crack down on this, the internet’s a really good place to start. Why isn’t there more enforcement action happening, Patrick, around this?

PATRICK SHIREY: I think one of the big challenges is we’ve lost so much funding for dealing with these issues, both on the supply side and on the demand side. So both on the top down regulation and the Fish and Wildlife Service working with nurseries to make sure they’re following the law, but also the bottom up side that we don’t have enough market research on consumer demand. There was a study published last month on consumer preferences for orchids in international trade, and we’re just starting to get a handle on what hobbyists prefer or collectors prefer when they look for an endangered plant online.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s go back to the phones. Tom is calling from Boston.

Hi there, Tom.

TOM: Hi. The caller who talked about poaching Venus flytraps in the Upper Peninsula, let me put her mind at ease. They were probably sundew. I went to floristry school in the Adirondacks and did a little interpretive presentation on carnivorous plants, and the climate’s probably similar. The sundew a pitcher plant live that far north.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. Well, thank you. And thank you for putting Michelle’s mind at ease, Tom.

TOM: Yeah. OK. No problem. Have a good weekend.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, you too.

Hey, Patrick, and I asked Johnny Randall about this, do people turn to you often and ask these questions like, oh my goodness, I think I have a plant that might be illegal, what away do?

PATRICK SHIREY: Well, one of the things that ended up after the study is I was contacted by growers. And one of the solutions that the growers and conservation biologists like Johnny have come up with is why don’t we have a certification program instead of a permit program. Like has been done with us certifying sustainably grown forced material, timber, why can’t we do that for endangered plant species, where nurseries are vetted and follow proper procedure when propagating plants so that we keep concerns like genetics and wild populations in mind when reproducing these species for human consumption.

JOHN DANKOSKY: John, does that sound right to you?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Yes. And, in fact, in North Carolina a new ordinance has been enacted where all endangered plants, rare plants that are legal to collect, if you have a permit, must also come with a certificate of origin that indicates exactly where you got this plant, whether you have landowner permission or not. So we are stepping up the regulations a bit.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking about the illegal trade in rare plants. And if you have questions for our guests, 844-724-8255 or 844-SCI-TALK.

After the break we’re going to talk more about this issue coming up next.

This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. And we’re talking this hour about plant poaching. My guests are Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and Patrick Shirey is an ecologist and project manager at RA Smith National in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I want to get to a few phone calls. Amanda is calling from San Francisco.

Hi there, Amanda. You’re on Science Friday.

Oh, I think I have Jeff on the line, excuse me. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF: Hi. Thanks for having me on.


JEFF: Yeah. I’m wondering, with respect to the laws in North Carolina and elsewhere about how they’re written and enforced. Is there some really good provision for providing amnesty protection and encouragement for the low level collectors to turn in the dealers who facilitated and encouraged this whole thing, and make the money out of it?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Jeff, that’s a great question.

Johnny Randall?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m sure that law enforcement officials look to that kind of solution.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. And I wonder, Patrick Shirey, if you have any thoughts about that. Because without some sort of enforcement mechanism, it seems as though this is a pretty unfettered marketplace for illegal plants.

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. In talking with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the past, I know they’ve been over taxed just with the trade in endangered animals and parts of endangered animals. They don’t have as much money and human resources to put toward enforcement within endangered plants. So they appreciate if you provide them a tip anonymously. But there’s no reward structure or anything like that, that I’m aware of.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Johnny, when we were listening to Marc Hachadourian from the Bronx earlier, he clearly loves his plants very, very much, and was referring to them almost like you would hear someone talk about animals that were being rehabilitated. I guess I’m wondering how you feel plant poaching is being treated differently from animal poaching in this country.

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, I think that plants don’t have the ability to run away, so they are particularly vulnerable. As a fellow botanist, I have great

affiliation for plants, so I too care greatly about them. But also we’ve seen this insidious process of seeing plant populations dwindle in size down to some low level of population viability where there are not enough numbers for them to reproduce effectively and have enough genetic diversity to respond to environmental change, et cetera.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, Patrick, one of the things that has been tried in the animal kingdom is this idea that if we flood the trade with fake rhino horns, maybe they’ll be less desirable, the demand will go down. Do you think something like this would work with plants?

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. It’s been proposed and in some instances it may work. In others, by increasing the desire, like we’ve seen with the Venus flytrap, you still have pressure on the wild populations. We do have one example within the last two decades that was successful, and that was the Wollemi pine, a conifer that was discovered in Australia in 1994. And what they did with the Wollemi pine is they only found 100, 200 individuals of this tree in the wild, and we had a fossil record of this tree dating back tens of millions of years, but we didn’t know that it was still in existence. And so conservation biologists in Australia decided to propagate it in the lab, observe it for pests, and pathogens, and characteristics of being invasive. And it took a process of a decade until they had plants that we’re ready to introduce into commercial cultivation. And what Australia has done is developed a program where royalties from the sales of the Wollemi pine go toward protecting the plants in the wild. And I think for some endangered plants, this is a framework that can be used here in the United States and elsewhere to tackle some of the problems. But I just want underscore, it was a pretty extensive effort.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let me try Amanda again who called in from San Francisco.

Hi, Amanda.

AMANDA: Hello.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hi. You’re on the air.

AMANDA: Hi. I’m a member of the Mycological Society here in San Francisco, and I was wondering how this relates to mushrooms. I know there’s a lot of commercial harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in other areas of the country, and certain mushroom species that are endangered. Does this apply to them as while or what can you tell me about that?

JOHN DANKOSKY: What do you say, Patrick?

PATRICK SHIREY: I have not investigated the mushroom trade, but I would imagine it’s even more underground than the endangered plant trade. And I would think there’s even fewer resources spent on studying the challenges with collecting mushrooms.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Johnny, any thoughts on mushrooms?

JOHNNY RANDALL: Well, of course, like Patrick was alluding to, there’s a lot underground with the mushrooms, so what you’re seeing, this fruiting body is just essentially a fruit and the main body of the plant is under the ground as a mycelium. It’s not quite the same as a flowering plant.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I hope that helps answer your question, Amanda. I want to get to Rachel in Chicago.

Hi, Rachel.



RACHEL: I’m curious about the importance of wild population. I think earlier you mentioned that there are plenty of varieties of cultivated Venus flytraps around, and even that there wasn’t a lot of difference between them and the wild plants. And so with that, what’s the sort of importance of having the wild population still preserved?

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s a great question. Who wants to take that?

JOHNNY RANDALL: I’m happy to. Well, I may have indicated that there wasn’t any difference in terms of the species, but in cultivated populations that are available commercially, they’re pretty much uniform genetically. Many of them are simply clones, whereas in the wild populations, there is genetic variation, as I was talking earlier, where there needs to be this genetic variation in order for plants and all organisms to respond to environmental change. So the wild populations are very important. And also by removing rare plants or any plant from the wild, you are altering that particular ecosystem and plant community, the plant-plant and plant-animal interaction some that we do not fully understand.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Patrick, what do you say?

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. Once you remove a plant for the wild, it’s dead to that wild population. They could no longer contribute genetics to the wild population, and that is an important concern, and something that conservation biologists have discussed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So there’s this new law or relatively new law in North Carolina. Obviously is you’ve suggested, Patrick, there is some enforcement, but probably not enough. What do we do about this? Is this about vigilance within the community of plant collectors? Does this have something to do with more enforcement? You already said there’s probably not enough money for it. What do we do about this problem?

PATRICK SHIREY: I think we have to partner with nurseries. I think that commercial growers have said that and desired to be part of the solution, like I said, through a certification program. But we really need education and outreach toward consumers of rare plants. And botanic gardens are doing this. The Mercer Arboretum Botanical Garden in Texas has a program where you can sponsor an endangered plant, and you can volunteer for these botanical gardens. So If you really care about the species, instead of collecting them, want to donate your time to help with the wild populations, help study what’s out there.

JOHN DANKOSKY: If you don’t have a local botanical garden real near you, though, where do you turn? Is there someplace to really learn about all this world?

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. The Center for Plant Conservation is a great start. And Johnny, can, I think, talk more about their role in consumer education.

JOHNNY RANDALL: Yeah. The Center for Plant Conservation is a consortium of botanical gardens around the country. There are about 45 garden that participate. And they hold what is called the National Collection of Endangered Plants, and curate I think about 700– no, I’m sorry, thousands of plants, where they’re held off site as ex situ conservation collections, usually as seed collections. But, at any rate, the Center for Plant Conservation has a lot of great information on the recovery of endangered plants in general.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And, Patrick, we just have less than a minute left, but do you see that in the course of your career, that we start to cut down on illegal plant poaching here in the United States?

PATRICK SHIREY: Yeah. I think we will. I think there’s been desire on both sides of the issue to come to an agreement and to solve this problem, and I think we will. I think there are good reasons for the regulation in the first place. There were some that wanted to ban trade out right, and there were others that didn’t want to have any regulation. And the regulations that the Fish and Wildlife Service passed in 1977 were a compromise, and that’s what we’re all about as a democracy.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Patrick Shirey’s an ecologist and project manager at RA Smith National in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for joining us.

PATRICK SHIREY: Thank you, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks also to Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Thank you, sir

JOHNNY RANDALL: You’re welcome.

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