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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,” 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.