Succulent smuggling: why are South Africa’s rare desert plants disappearing?

Succulent smuggling: why are South Africa’s rare desert plants disappearing?

isIn May 2020, 10mm of rain fell on the Sendelingsdrif Rest Camp, in the most north-western corner of South Africa. After enduring nine years of almost zero rain, Pieter van Wyk, a 32-year-old self-taught botanist who runs the Richtersveld National Park nursery, was delighted to see several species bloom for the first time in nearly a decade. The rain, including 200mm on the nearby mountains, was a welcome respite for the flora and fauna of the World Heritage site.

His joy, however, was short-lived. If the rain gave temporary life to some annuals and bulbs in the cross-border park | Ai- | Ais / Richtersveld, it has hardly changed the fact that many species, especially large succulents like aloes, are at risk. A study to be published by Van Wyk and others shows that 85% of the population of the distinctive Pearson’s Aloe (Aloe pearsonii) – endemic to the Richtersveld – has been lost for the past five years, having been a stable presence for the previous four decades.

Pearson’s aloe, decimated in Richtersveld National Park in recent years. Photographie: Collection GFC / Alamy

Pearson’s aloe is just one of dozens of species Van Wyk fears it will become extinct in his lifetime. Plants face a number of threats, but it is the climate emergency and poaching that have the greatest impact.

When all goes well, the Richtersveld’s position in the North Cape, at the intersection of three biomes, coupled with its geological complexity – the park is home to the oldest mountains in the world – and the fact that it straddles winter and rainfall regions. summer, makes it a paradise for botanists. With more than 3,000 plant species, including 400 endemic to the region, it is “by far the most biologically diverse desert in the world,” says Van Wyk proudly.

Despite being 20 times smaller and having much lower rainfall, Richtersveld has more plant species than the country’s famous Kruger National Park. It is, says Van Wyk, “the most important succulent laboratory in the world”.

But it is this variety of rare succulents that attracts poachers. Many Richtersveld species are so specialized that they only grow in a valley or on a mountain slope. In extreme cases, an entire species can be confined to an area smaller than a football field, so that a poacher could extinguish a species in one morning. Poaching plants could be more lucrative than the country’s rhino horn industry, Van Wyk says.

Succulents growing in the rusty red soil of the iAi-ǀAis / Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Photograph: imageBROKER / Alamy

Poachers target species generally threatened with extinction, which fetch the highest prices on the black market (wild plants “full of characters” fetch higher prices than cultivated plants). “Although the sale of these plants is strictly illegal, they don’t even try to hide what they sell on social media,” says Van Wyk.

Richtersveld’s dwarf succulents top the poachers’ list, but southern African species are targeted. The plants are sold in Asia, Europe and North America by crime syndicates who outsource poaching to desperate South Africans. In four months in 2019, 15,000 specimens of a single Conophytum cash was confiscated from poachers after a denunciation. And in 2020, two South Koreans were fined 5million rand (£ 250,000) for illegal possession of 60,000 Conophytum plants. Confiscated plants can never be returned to their habitats, so botanical nurseries end up inundated.

With limited police resources and vast semi-desert areas, it is almost guaranteed that many more plants are smuggled out of the country. More than 30 species of Conophytum are on the Red List of Threatened Species in South Africa. The South African National Institute of Biodiversity notes that many of them are heavily poached.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency weighs heavily on extreme ecosystems such as the Richtersveld. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a temperature increase of between 3.4 ° C and 4.2 ° C for the region as the climate becomes drier and windier.

Cephalophyllum spissum does not look healthy
Drought conditions in southern Africa have challenged succulents such as A thick Cephalophyllum. Photograph: Handout

“The hotter it is, the more aquatic plants need to survive,” says Nick Helme, Cape Town-based botanical consultant. “But lower precipitation means there is actually less water in the soil.” Increasingly strong coastal winds aggravate the problem. In the past, these “shepherd winds” were almost always followed by rains that dampened the topsoil and held everything together. But in recent years the rains have stopped coming and millions of tons of dust, topsoil and seeds are “blown into the sea to feed the fish,” says Helme. A storm, captured by satellite imagery in September 2019, threw a plume of rubbish 400 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Namaqualand is a hotspot for succulents, such as Cephalophyllum spissum.
Namaqualand is a hotspot for succulents such as A thick Cephalophyllum. Photography: Ute Schmiedel / Document

The effects of the climate emergency are already visible in the more densely populated Namaqualand, another botanical hotspot a few hundred kilometers to the south. Dr Ute Schmiedel of the University of Hamburg has been monitoring the same one square kilometer plot “down to individual plants” for 20 years. In 2017, she believed she was witnessing a catastrophic decline similar to the one Van Wyk documented with Pearson’s aloes. But better rains the following year allowed many of the succulents in his plot to rebound. “We have to keep in mind that droughts are normal in this part of the world and that plants have adapted to counter that,” she says, explaining that species in her plots tended to have larger seed banks. resistant than aloes. But droughts “are increasing in severity and frequency,” she adds, “and the plants will not be able to bounce back every time.”

“In marginal areas like Namaqualand, climate change will not only destroy ecosystems, it will also destroy livelihoods,” says Helme. It is increasingly difficult for subsistence farmers in the region to make a living. And during dry years, their sheep and goats compound the problem by grazing on woody plants and damaging the topsoil. “Obviously, fewer goats would be better,” says Helme. ” But [when it comes to climate change] they are the least responsible people on the planet. “

In total, more than 100 Richtersveld species have been placed on South Africa’s Red List in the past five years due to the climate crisis, poaching, overgrazing, but also mining. Because the land technically belongs to the local Nama community, mining is permitted in the national park – although Van Wyk points out that the Nama have received “virtually no benefit” from it.

Flowering succulents (Cheiridopsis vygies and Monsonia shrubs) in eastern Kamiesberg, after good rains in winter and spring 2020 Nick Helme
Flowering succulents in Namaqualand. Photograph: Nick Helme / Document

All mining and development applications currently awaiting approval are concentrated in the most biodiverse areas of the region. “Hopefully not all of them will be approved,” says Van Wyk, before adding that the Boegoebaai Harbor project, in the heart of the Richtersveld, “could become one of the greatest man-made natural disasters in Africa. from South”.

It is “horrible” to see the disappearance of a stable ecosystem for millions of years, he adds. “You fall in love with the landscape in which you grow up. And you think you’ll die before him. “

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