Smith: More succulent poaching on Sonoma coast reported

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About the time you think you’ve heard it all, a Sonoma Coast hiker recounts watching, aghast, as three men went furtively about poaching.

They weren’t plundering abalone, but a native plant that in parts of Asia has become prized as a houseplant.

The hiker from Santa Rosa had read earlier of the illegal harvesting of Dudleya farinosa succulents. As she and her husband witnessed a brazen theft of the plants on a bluff north of Salt Point State Park, she pulled out her cell phone.

“We tried to call law enforcement, but there was no cell service,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. By the time she and her husband connected with state parks officials, the men who’d lugged large backpacks to a car parked on Highway 1 were gone.

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IT’S A PROBLEM. Thieves eager to profit from a black market that sells mature, potentially decades-old Dudleyas in South Korea, China and elsewhere for $30, $50 or more per rosette are digging up the plants along large stretches of the California coast.

Officers with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife have made arrests, typically after receiving tips from people like the Santa Rosa hikers.

If you’re on the coast and spot suspicious activity, dial, as soon as possible, the Cal-Tip line at 888-334-2258. Or text tip411, write “CalTip” and then describe the poaching and, ideally, the license plate of the suspects’ vehicle.

It’d be smart to save those numbers in your phone.

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A GOOD TIP led last year to the arrests of two South Korean men who aroused suspicion while mailing boxes to China.

Fish and Wildlife wardens confronted Minguk Cho, 27, and Hyeong­jae Kim, 39, on the Mendocino Coast. The pair had in their possession 30 large cartons containing an estimated 1,400 Dudleya rosettes.

Convicted in Mendocino County of felony grand theft, Cho and Kim paid $20,000 to the state for habitat restoration and agreed to leave the country rather than go to prison.

Thankfully, it’s often possible to replant the looted succulents back where they were taken.

But the poaching is infuriating and worrisome for a host of reasons: For the succulents to be uprooted can leave seaside cliffs and slopes more vulnerable to erosion, and can present opportunities for nonnative plant species to take hold.

It’s been noted, too, that the wholesale loss of the succulents might impact the bees and hummingbirds that draw nectar from them, and the butterflies that lay eggs in them.

Michael van Hattem, a state environmental scientist, has called the Dudleya “the botanical version of abalone.” Like the tasty and frequently poached mollusk, the plant is a sensitive species that thrives only in a specific habitat.

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IT’S A FAD, just now, in parts of Asia to keep these succulents in pots at home. Dudleyas, sometimes called bluff lettuce or powdery liveforever, can be bought legally at nurseries, but there are people willing to pay big prices for mature ones.

So at the coast, keep watch for anyone who’s acting as a lookout or stooping and digging or schlepping boxes or packs.

Meanwhile, we’ll hope this fascination with native succulents stripped from our coast gives way soon to some less destructive home-decor craze.

You can contact columnist Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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