On his belly in the bushes in a camouflage ghillie suit, California game warden Patrick Freeling came across a bulging backpack resting on a blufftop and knew he was onto something big.
In the preceding months, he had seen evidence of some illicit activity having to do with coastal succulents - a large shipment of boxes to Asia from the Mendocino post office; a man stealing plants from a Caltrans right-of-way.
But it was the expedition pack he discovered on the ground that March day last year near Point Arena that crystallized the caper in his mind. The sack was stuffed with native succulents called Dudleya farinosa that only grow along the Central and North Coast. Smugglers were coming to these shores to poach the plants and send them in bulk overseas for profit on the black market.
Investigators now believe several hundred thousands plants worth tens of millions of dollars on the Asian black market have been torn illegally from bluffs along the Northern California coast over the past several years, in some cases stripping whole areas of the plant species, said Adrian Foss, a captain with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It's massive,” Foss said. “It's large-scale theft.”
The wild plants are shipped to Asia for ornamental use even though they are grown easily in a nursery setting.
Officials say the smuggled plants sell for $40 to $80 each on the black market in countries including South Korea, China and Japan. Their age, size and number of rosettes influence the price. Exceptionally large, mature plants can range as high $1,000. Some poached plants appeared to be 50 to 100 years old, one expert consulting with the fish and wildlife department said.
“It's like all of a sudden these were coveted, and then it just exploded,” Foss said. “It became a bit of a Gold Rush-type phenomenon, where there must be some sources back there that are driving the demand for this and employing others to head out this way and ship back these products.”
No slowdown in the underground trade
Authorities have prosecuted multiple defendants in four criminal cases, many of them foreign nationals. The cases highlight a statewide push to charge the crimes as felonies and extract large fines and penalties.
They are moving at least two more cases through the court system, one involving three South Korean nationals arrested for poaching in Del Norte County last fall and another involving suspects from Southern California who have targeted plants in Marin County, the Mendocino Headlands and Point Reyes National Seashore, officials said.
But an unknown number of poachers have escaped capture. Evidence of their activities spans the coast, including Sonoma County, and at this point, there are no signs the underground trade is declining, Foss said.
A Santa Rosa woman out hiking with her husband in January observed three plant thieves using poles with loops on the ends to uproot succulents from Salt Point State Park, completely unconcerned they were being watched, said the woman, who spoke on condition her name not be used.
Another woman reported poaching in Sea Ranch so brazen the trio was using a fold-out table at the top of the bluff to package the Dudleya right off the trail, Freeling said.
“I think it's simple,” said Michael van Hattem, a senior environmental scientist with the state fish and wildlife department. “This is just classic poaching. They're taking a shortcut for a quick payout. ... It just fits into that greed paradigm.”
The fate of California's Dudleya plants
Dudleya farinosa, sometimes called “bluff lettuce” or “powdery liveforever,” is one of several species of Dudleya, itself one of many varieties of succulent, a type of drought-resistant plant with thick, fleshy parts that store water.
Farinosa is gray-green to chalky white in color and may have reddish tipped leaves, forming symmetrically shaped rosettes, several of which can grow from the same root stem over time. From time to time, the plants produce long flowering stems that are reddish pink and yellow. The species grows along ocean bluffs and a few spots inland from the southern Oregon border to Monterey County, with a small population in Santa Barbara County, van Hattem said.
Their black market value is in part due to the tremendous popularity of succulents generally, which, in the United States, have become a staple not just at nurseries and home improvements stores but at groceries, drug stores and other retail outlets, desired for their low-water needs, wide variety, compact growing habit and visual appeal.
While they're easily cultivated from seed and grown in nurseries both in the United States and in Asia, the large, old, wild-harvested Dudleya are considered luxury items by collectors overseas and command high prices, sources said. Imperfections inflicted by the elements are a plus.