Three South Korean nationals were charged last month with attempting to export 1,397 illegally poached Dudleya plants valued at more than $600,000.
The slow-growing native succulents are in high demand with collectors in Asia, who are willing to pay high prices for the often rare and endangered plants.
The case is just the latest in a troubling trend. The plants recovered this time were illegally harvested from the central coast, but Dudleya poaching is a growing problem all along the California coast, including the Santa Monica Mountains.
The succulents are popularized on social media sites like Instagram, where there are currently more than 7 million posts with the #succulent hashtag. A Department of Justice press release states that the Dudleya plants “are particularly valuable in Asia due to their unique physical features, including the color and shape of their leaves.” The fact that the native California species are rare adds to their demand. The increase in Dudleya poaching incidents coincides with the increase in popularity of these rare plants on social media.
Court documents detail the incidents leading up to the arrest: The three men charged in the most recent incident flew into Los Angeles in October 2018, and drove to various state parks where Dudleya plants grow, including DeMartin State Beach in Klamath, California, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino County, where “law enforcement surveilling the defendants observed them pull the plants out of the ground and then transport the harvested Dudleya plants to a nursery that Byungsu Kim operated in Vista, located in San Diego County.”
The brazen plant poachers scheduled an inspection with a county agriculture official at the Vista nursery and presented her with a falsified government certificate indicating the plants were cultivated in San Diego County, the indictment alleges.
The defendants then transported the plants to a commercial exporter in Compton, where they were arrested, and the cargo seized. The three men currently face state criminal charges in Del Norte County Superior Court. Law enforcement seized approximately 3,715 Dudleya plants (664 pounds) in 34 boxes at the Compton location and the value of the seized plants in Korea would be approximately $602,950, court papers state. Two of the defendants—Byungsu Kim and Youngin Back—have since fled the United States.
If convicted on all counts, the defendants face a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.
In 2018, when a raid that resulted in the recovery of more than 2000 Dudleyas poached from Mendocino and Humboldt counties, a team of California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff and volunteers had to issue a call for help with replanting. Succulent experts from the California Native Plant Society rallied and the plants were restored to their native habitat within a week.
Many native species of Dudleya are highly sensitive, dependent on specific conditions found only in their specific coastal habitat. Some require decades to grow, and the survival rate for plants that are smuggled out of the county is low. The qualities that make them desirable on the black market—hard to propagate, slow growing, small, and rare—also make them difficult to keep alive away from their specific ecological niche.