California Fish and Wildlife Warden Pat Freeling returned to the Mendocino coast location where he discovered two Korean men with 850 wild Dudleya farinosa in their van in March 2018. Freeling ordered the pair to replant the succulent on the coastal bluff and the native plant society is helping and caring for the damaged area. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Plant smugglers take ‘massive’ toll on California's Dudleya farinosa succulent species

Hundreds of thousands of Dudleya farinosa have been stripped from the California coast and sold overseas in black market trade worth tens of millions of dollars.

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MENDOCINO COAST

O n 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. It’s large-scale theft.
- 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.

How to help curb poaching

California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers hope the public will serve as their eyes and ears out on the landscape and let authorities know if they see suspicious behavior or outright poaching.

Civilians can call 1-888-334-CalTIP to provide confidential information about poaching and polluting or submit information and photos directly through the state’s downloadable cellphone app.

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.

I think it’s simple. This is just classic poaching. They’re taking a shortcut for a quick payout. ... It just fits into that greed paradigm.
— Michael van Hattem, a senior environmental scientist with the state fish and wildlife department

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.

No one’s sure how long the California’s Dudleya plants have been under siege, but it’s at least a few years.

Catching onto poaching

The first hint of a plant poaching problem came from inside the rural Mendocino Post Office, during the 2017 Christmas rush, when a woman in line grew exceedingly frustrated with the long wait, state fish and wildlife officials said.

A large part of the holdup was a man who was mailing a stunning 60 boxes to China. When the woman asked what was inside them, he put his finger to his lips as if to say, “Shhhhh,” and gestured toward the ocean. “Something very valuable,” he said, Fish and Wildlife Capt. Patrick Foy said.

The woman assumed he was an abalone poacher, took down his license plate number and reported the encounter to the Fish and Wildlife CalTIP hotline, Foy said.

Freeling, whose police dog is trained to sniff out abalone, responded to the post office and wanted to run his dog by the boxes but was prohibited without a search warrant.

Once the shipment made its way to the postal center in San Francisco, the boxes were X-rayed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel who found not “this massive abalone case,” Foy said, but something altogether unexpected: humble little plants.

It turned out the man in the Mendocino Post Office, often with one or two sidekicks, had been coming in a couple of times a month for about 2 years, maybe longer, to mail about 30 boxes to Asia each time, said Postmaster Stephanie Bishop, who took over as head of the office in 2016.

The shipments caught her attention in part because of their large number and destination, but also because she would find soil on the boxes and residue under the tape that made her wonder if there was something illicit going on.

She reported her concerns to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and was told not to worry — to let the packages go. It’s unclear what, if any, inquiry was made by the inspector’s office.

In the meantime, the shipments required so many U.S. Customs forms that Bishop would have to borrow from post offices in neighboring Fort Bragg and Albion, only to find they were getting hit, too, as was the Trinidad office in Humboldt County, she said.

But at that point, there was nothing pointing to illegal conduct, officials said, and the packages were all shipped off.

Freeling, meanwhile, went on about his business and in late January 2018 responded to a call about two suspicious men on a cliff near Point Arena. One had bailed over the side of the bluff with a large backpack. When Freeling got there, he found the guy collecting succulents from a Caltrans right-of-way, with 50 plants in his pack already.

“It was still going through my head that these were ab poachers — didn’t even register that they might be the plant poachers who I had talked to this woman about ... earlier. So it was kind of a surprise,” he said.

The man with the backpack, a Sacramento-area resident named Xiao Yang, originally said the plants were for his garden, Freeling said. But when the warden called his bluff, he conceded he had been selling the succulents in Asia for $20 to $30 a piece and had made one or two trips to the coast each month for the previous three or four months.

He eventually pleaded guilty to the illegal harvest of plants and received three years probation, a $5,000 fine and 240 hours of community service.

The area where he was caught? “Strip-mined,” Freeling said.

'The pivotal moment'

It was five weeks after Freeling confronted Yang when the warden was driving Highway 1 and saw a minivan parked oddly in a short passing lane to the right of the road. He ran the license plate and learned it was a rented van. He donned his ghillie suit and went to investigate. That’s when he found the huge backpack with the succulents spilling out.

That was a year ago, when fish and wildlife law enforcement officers on the North Coast still approached suspicious behavior with one thing in mind: abalone poaching. So finding plants when he expected the contents to be rare, coveted shellfish still was a surprise, Freeling said.

Crawling farther down the hill, Freeling saw two men scooping powdery-looking plants out of the shallow cliff-side soil and stuffing them into rucksacks. He ordered them to stop.

He would find they already had filled 30 cardboard cartons in the parked minivan with 850 native Dudleya farinosa intended for sale in Asia. Also in the van were binders of carefully organized business cards from exotic plant vendors around the globe, suggesting the two men “were tied into a whole network,” Freeling said.

The suspects, Minguk Cho, 27, and Hyeongjae Kim, 39, carried South Korean passports with tourist visas allowing them to stay in California a few months. It appeared they had rented the vehicle in San Francisco, driven north and started harvesting Dudleya all the way until Freeling caught up with them near Point Arena, about 140 miles north of the city.

He ordered them to replant everything they had dug up, and they spent hours doing so, though not particularly well. Freeling had a contact from the area — a landscaper with the California Native Plant Society — collect the succulents that were improperly planted for replanting at a later time, he said.

It was a defining moment for him and his agency, and marked the first time officials put a name to the species at the center of the smuggling scheme. Soon, Freeling was receiving emails and calls from people throughout government and the plant world, revealing a level of interest and passion about the subject he had not anticipated.

“When I saw the van, plants were the furthest thing from my mind, and then when I crawled out on my belly and saw the backpack, that was the, ‘Wow, now we’ve got something,’” he said. “That was the pivotal moment.”

Deputy Mendocino County District Attorney Tim Stoen said he elevated the case to a felony because the number of plants taken “was so egregious” and to “send out a message that this was a serious matter,” setting a precedent that has been followed since in at least two other counties.

Cho and Kim, flying back across the ocean for court hearings, would eventually plead guilty to felony grand theft and were ordered to leave the country to avoid a two-year prison sentence. Each was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Their case still was being resolved when observant Humboldt County postal workers tipped state fish and wildlife officials to three suspicious men operating in the Trinidad area in early April of last year.

Officers intercepted a van they had rented at the Las Vegas airport on their way to making a shipment of 1,334 Dudleya. Many of the packages were labeled “clothing,” Foss said.

His agents later seized 1,000 more succulents from the men’s cabin at the Oak Grove Lodge in Trinidad, as well as $10,200 in cash.

The suspects, two South Koreans and a Chinese man, later pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and making false filings with the government. They were given suspended prison sentences of three years, eight months and are prohibited from entering the United States without prior government authorization. They also forfeited the cash, which is to be used to conserve Dudleya on Humboldt county public lands.

Receipts and paperwork in their possession indicated the men already had shipped tens of thousands of plants overseas dating back more than a year, state fish and wildlife officials said.

The seized plants had been removed from Humboldt Lagoons State Park — “beautiful specimens” later returned to the ground by a volunteer army assembled by van Hattem and others to ensure the ecosystem remained intact.

“We could always tell where they had been because there was disturbance” on the ground, van Hattem, a state senior environmental scientist, said.

Officials have mounted similar replanting efforts where feasible. In one case they were only partly able to do so.

A Southern California couple who poached about 600 plants from at least three counties before they were caught had put most of them in garden soil that could have introduced contaminants to the native environment had the succulents been replanted, said Stephen McCabe, an authority on Dudleya plants and emeritus director of research at the UC Santa Cruz arboretum.

McCabe, who has helped state wildlife agents identify poached plants they have seized, was referring to succulents found at the Palmdale home after a Carmel Valley woman who was visiting Garrapata State Park in Monterey County last May saw a couple hauling bags of Dudleya up a roadside trail to their car.

The woman, Jade Davis, had pulled off the highway into a turnout to help her son retrieve a toy he had dropped from his car seat. She recognized the plants the couple took from their bags from news reports about plant poaching on the coast. She got out of her vehicle, snapped photos of the suspects, Guanrong and Jose Luis Rivera, as well as their license plate, and told them she intended to turn them in, she recalled in an interview.

Authorities later seized hundreds of plants from their home and discovered WeChat messages on Guanrong Rivera’s phone indicating the woman was planning to ship the plants to her niece in China for sale there, said Deputy Monterey County District Attorney Justin Lee, who prosecuted the case.

It appears from their exchanges the niece’s knowledge of the plants and their value came from publicity about earlier poaching arrests in Mendocino County, he said.

At least one shipment had already made it out of the United States by the time the Riveras were caught. The shipments were marked on the U.S. Customs form as “makeup” and “vitamins,” Lee said.

“We’ve never really had anything like it,” he said.

Guanrong Rivera, 49, was sentenced to three years of formal probation and 179 days in county jail, and was ordered to pay $20,000 in fines and contributions to a state fish and wildlife fund, in addition to restitution to state parks, authorities said. Her husband, who was deemed an accomplice, received a lesser punishment, including 40 days in county jail and informal probation.

“There was no way I was just going to sit there and watch them do that,” said Davis, 38. “The minute I realized what they were doing, there was no way I could sit there and not do anything.”

Looking at the 'succulent craze'

McCabe said Dudleya farinosa is just the latest coastal plant to be sought in Asia and resembles the rare Dudleya pachyphytum found growing naturally only on the steep slopes of Cedros Island off Baja California, where it’s been widely harvested by poachers — including, he said, some rumored to have rappelled down from a helicopter.

He said increased security by the Mexican government on Cedros Island may have contributed to increased pressure on Dudleya farinosa. What’s clear is “the numbers (here) are pretty staggering,” he said. “It’s really a drastic, dramatic problem.”

A South Korean nursery owner told National Public Radio last year the succulent craze hit his country well over a decade ago. He said foreign-grown plants were pouring into the peninsula by 2005, then began flooding the region once the Chinese became infatuated with the nonnative succulents and, particularly, with those shaped by the elements over years in their natural habitat.

“That’s why they can be sold at a high price,” the nursery owner told NPR.

Steve Super, owner of Los Osos-based Steve Super Gardens, in San Luis Obispo County, ships plants domestically and internationally and figures that’s how unscrupulous growers and vendors in Asia found him beginning five or six years ago. They began soliciting him online for Dudleya farinosa plants collected from the wild.

It’s only happened three or four times, but he could tell from the photos they sent to illustrate what they wanted that they had decades-old plants from right off the coast — thousands of them — with long stems and multiple rosettes.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” Super said.

Those who contacted him even seemed to prefer the plants with brownish dead tissue on them called “pile.” That means they were shipped illegally, as well, since the only way plants can pass sanitary agriculture inspection for overseas shipment is if they’re cleaned of soil, insects and dead material, he said.

Even worse, the plants occupy a narrow habitat niche on ocean-facing bluffs, above the wave line and below the shrubs, which would shade them out, van Hattem said. They need a lot of sun and a particular air moisture content. So while they’re durable enough to be thrown in a box and shipped one on top of another, their life expectancy is short in high-humidity Asian countries, inside with little natural light.

“They are not rare by any means,” van Hattem said, “however they are sensitive. They’re long-lived. They produce a fair amount of seed, but they can only really occupy these really microniches within this narrow habitat or ecotone on the North Coast. So they can’t handle the collection pressure.”

Their absence from the landscape, meanwhile, can contribute to erosion and disrupt the ecosystem, removing a source of nectar for bees and hummingbirds and allowing opportunistic nonnative plant species to get a foot-hold in disturbed soil.

“I believe that there are places where they should be but they’re not,” van Hattem said, “and I think that it is from systematic collecting. ... But this is different. It’s export scale, and that’s what makes it very concerning to me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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