These tiny succulents are under siege from international crime rings

Demand for ornamental plants is ravaging South Africa’s rare desert flora—and fueling a nonstop duel between poachers and police.

Published 10 Mar 2022, 09:28 GMT
succulents 16
Poachers in South Africa raid farmers’ lands for Conophytum, rare succulents coveted by ornamental plant collectors. Confiscated conos, such as these Conophytum comptonii, are kept in secure greenhouses rather than replanted in the wild.

Before the sun peeked over the desert horizon on a Friday morning in April 2021, Pieter Schreuder sat down to breakfast with his wife, Joan. They kept their voices low so as not to wake their sons, ages nine and 11. Then, Schreuder and the family’s black-and-white sheepdog, Panda, climbed into a bakkie, or pickup truck, to begin the day’s work at the family’s 25,000-acre sheep and goat farm some 35 miles away in Northern Cape, South Africa’s largest province.

Footprints near the farm’s gates were the first sign that something was wrong. It wasn’t until hours later that Schreuder spotted four strangers in the distance. When he called out, they started to run.

Adrenaline surging, he gave chase, brandishing the rifle he kept in the truck. He says he found the men hiding behind a boulder and demanded that they strip down to their underwear so he could make sure they weren’t carrying weapons. The men said they’d come to search for wild horses, but Schreuder suspected they’d come to dig up rare succulents that grow on his property. He’d heard about such crimes occurring elsewhere in the area.

Pieter Schreuder, a farmer in Northern Cape province, examines well-camouflaged Conophytum, the two greenish protrusions under his nose. By August 2021, 13 alleged poachers had been arrested for stealing conos from the Schreuders’ 25,000-acre farm. He says monitoring for poachers is now “a 24-hour job.”
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

To scare the men into staying put and following his orders, Schreuder says he fired three warning shots—one into the air, one into a nearby rock, and another behind one of the men who was running away. He ordered the other three into the back of the truck, tossing them a sleeping bag to cover themselves. Then he and his farm hand gathered up their clothes and bags.

“I wanted to get them to the police station as quickly as possible,” Schreuder says. He called Detective Captain Karel du Toit, who leads a team that helps police investigate wildlife and livestock crimes in the region. Du Toit advised Schreuder to drive the men to the station in the small town of Kamieskroon, about 90 minutes away, where one of his officers was on duty.

Later that afternoon when officers at the station peered inside the men’s bags, they found a BB gun and about a hundred tiny, cone-shaped plants. They were Conophytum caroli, a species of rare succulent found only in a few locations in southern Africa, including Schreuder’s farm.

Most of the world’s roughly hundred species of Conophytum, or conos, as they’re often called, are threatened. Some are critically endangered, clinging to a single hillside or scattered over rocky outcrops. One prized species grows only at a zinc mining complex not far from the Schreuders’ farm. The scarcity that makes conos so alluring to ornamental plant collectors—primarily in China but also in Japan and South Korea—puts their survival at risk, says Adam Harrower, a botanist at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, in Cape Town.

Schreuder says his family was shaken after his run-in with the men, but at the time, he thought it was an isolated incident and that he’d taken the right action. “If there’s a dangerous snake in your house, would you close the door and walk away? I had to defend myself,” he says.

Yet a few days later, officers from the regional police station, in Garies, arrested Schreuder, charging him with attempted murder for firing the shots. The men he’d taken to Kamieskroon had filed complaints. Schreuder spent two nights in the Garies jail before he was released pending trial.

Very soon after that, two men came to the house when Joan was home alone with the boys. They tried to unhook the latch to the side door and force their way in, she says. “It was very scary for me.” They left only after she threatened to set their Doberman on them, yelling that the dog was trained to rip people apart.

The police never identified the men, and the investigation remains open.

“My eldest son is still not sleeping at night,” Joan says months later. She says her other son asks about his dad constantly during the day, anxious that he won’t come home safely.

The case against Schreuder hasn’t been dismissed, but he says his lawyer doesn’t think prosecutors will pursue the charge. Nevertheless, Schreuder says he still has a nagging fear that he’ll end up before a judge, fighting to stay out of jail.

The alleged poachers are scheduled to appear in court in April.

A surge in poaching

It’s been illegal to take Conophytum from the wild in South Africa since 1974. For years, cono poaching was limited, but thefts skyrocketed during COVID-19 lockdowns when foreign collectors couldn’t travel to South Africa and went online to recruit local people to find the plants for them, du Toit says. Buyers or their middlemen send photos and location information for the plants they’re seeking.

Conophytum pageae appeal to some collectors because they appear to have little lips. Hobbyists sometimes draw tiny faces on the plants and post the images to social media, fanning interest in China and elsewhere. These conos were seized by police.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
Confiscations have been so numerous in recent years that many conos, such as this Conophytum pageae, may languish in evidence bags or boxes so long that they die before they can be replanted in a greenhouse.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
Demand for specific conos can change from one day to the next. This Conophytum stevens-jonesianum is large enough that it was likely decades old when poachers unearthed it. In 2019, Chinese nationals were caught with 74 plants of this species, and three South Koreans were caught with another 215.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
A young, single-headed Conophytum praesectum, which sprouts magenta flowers in springtime, would fit in a thimble. This three-headed specimen won’t be replanted in the wild because it could possibly spread pests acquired in the greenhouse where it’s kept.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

“This is organised crime,” du Toit says, adding that rare conos are “worth more than heroin by weight,” with plants selling for anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars—each. His team, the Springbok Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, assists 16 police stations in Northern Cape with poaching investigations. Cono crimes are now the main focus of their work, he says.

In 2017, they made five cono arrests, but in 2020, they arrested 55 alleged cono poachers. Then, last year, those numbers doubled. Social media, du Toit says, facilitates the trade: Buyers and sellers use platforms such as Facebook and WeChat to recruit poachers and advertise their conos. Almost all the cases have not yet made it to the sentencing stage. Officially, violators may be subject to heavy fines or even up to 10 years in prison. But sentencing for locals who have committed such crimes typically amounts to just a few hundred dollars, due to considerations including the person’s income.

Once dug up, succulents—named for the thick, fleshy leaves that contain their water—typically are driven to Cape Town or Johannesburg to be flown to China or elsewhere. In some cases, they’re smuggled to Mozambique or to Nigeria, a known wildlife trafficking hub, where criminals may believe it’s easier to evade customs detection.

Wang Chuan, a spokesman for China’s embassy in South Africa, says his government has issued notices twice on its website advising people against taking succulents and warning that poachers could face prosecution.

“Worldwide, the succulent hobby once had maybe 10,000 people—now, it has millions, thanks to China and Korea,” says Steven Hammer, a California-based succulent expert and plant shop owner who first visited South Africa roughly 40 years ago to study Conophytum. The plants are “naturally miniature and so beautiful,” he says. “It was their small size that got me.”

He says poachers initially relied on resources including the two books he wrote to help them find the plants, but that today they get more precise guidance from GPS coordinates embedded in the metadata of cono photos posted online.

Tastes for particular species are always changing, Hammer says. Some hobbyists also decorate the plants using a felt tip pen, transforming them into “a face with whiskers and ears” or perhaps a human face, and post the images online. “People began competing for the cleverest Conophytum image,” he says. For example, after “face” images of Conophytum pageae, a green succulent with pink accents that already resemble tiny lips, appeared on Instagram and other platforms, demand in China for that species soared. 

This police sergeant at his station in Western Cape has worked many recent cono poaching cases. Picking conos without authorization in Western Cape and Northern Cape, the two South African provinces where they grow, has been illegal since 1974.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
These boxes contain hundreds of confiscated specimens of various species of Conophytum.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
The pink “lips” of Conophytum pageae, pictured both at far left and far right, are one feature that makes the plant popular among succulent collectors. Conophytum obcordellum, shown in the center, is targeted for its unusual patterns of dots and stripes.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

Counting conos

To protect Conophytum, conservationists—and landowners—must know where the plants are and how many are left.

“Population counts can often be very difficult, especially if the terrain is tough,” Harrower says, so they weren’t conducted frequently until early 2020, when poaching became a significant threat. He and other researchers record GPS locations when they find plants, then manually count all the ones they see, periodically returning to the same sites to compare the numbers. The approach is fairly reliable, he says, but if there’s been no rain, Conophytum “retreat beneath the soil surface, making them impossible to see and count.”

On an October afternoon about six months after Schreuder’s confrontation with the alleged poachers, I join Schreuder, neighbouring farmer Dawie Burden and his wife, Lizelle, and photographer Sydelle Willow Smith at the Schreuder farm, hoping to find the species poachers were stealing: Conophytum caroli. We fan out, scouring shadows among the rocks for any signs of the plants.

When not in bloom, conos blend into the terrain. They’re typically smaller than my fist, and those that are a bit larger may be dozens or even hundreds of years old. Some have numerous heads. Certain species can be speckled or striped, and in springtime, some produce pink, red, or white flowers.

Schreuder, bespectacled and wearing jeans and a Looney Tunes T-shirt, kneels down. “This spot’s been swept for plants,” he says. He means it literally: Poachers use brooms to uncover the plants, and we see bristle trails in the dirt.

Withered shrubs all around are reminders of the recent drought years. Conos, which need very little water, grow near rocks containing white quartz. The rocks reflect sunlight, moderating the air temperature in the immediate vicinity. Condensation at night drips down in tiny rivulets, supplying enough moisture to sustain the succulents.

Lizelle Burden says she and her husband, Dawie, are worried by the increase in succulent poaching in their area of Northern Cape.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
Dawie Burden, seen here on neighbor Pieter Schreuder’s farm, has set up a WhatsApp group for local people to alert one another about strange vehicles or intruders on their properties.
Photograph by Photography by Sydelle Willow Smith

After an hour or so, just as I’m losing hope of seeing a cono in the wild, Burden calls me over. There, amid the dusty earth, rocks, and lichen was a Conophytum caroli. No bigger than Burden’s thumbnail, the plant he’s pointing to hasn’t yet produced its solitary, daisy-like flower. Instead, it presents a brown exterior sheath—a shield against the blazing sun. As I stare at this small, nondescript ball in the dirt, I’m at a loss to explain the plant’s outsize appeal.

But for some cono buyers, it’s not really about the plants to begin with, says Pieter Van Wyk, a self-taught botanist who heads the plant nursery at a national park in Northern Cape. “I see this as the same as Bitcoin,” he says. “One person is invested in this, and another sees it’s valuable.” It sets off a craze.

Who are the poachers?

Schreuder says cono thieves may come to his farm many times in a week, particularly when there’s a full moon to help them find the plants. By last August, 13 men had been arrested for illegal possession of protected plants that allegedly were taken from his farm, according to police records.

About “80 percent” of succulent crime in Northern Cape is connected to mixed-race Rastafarians, according to du Toit. The Rasta movement emerged in the 1930s out of the oppression of Black people in Jamaica and took hold in South Africa several decades ago.

Rastafarians have long made a living picking and selling various plants from the wild and are knowledgeable about succulents, according to Zebulon, a producer and presenter with a radio station that covers the area around Springbok, the regional hub for the Schreuders and other farmers.

In May 2021, du Toit’s officers, acting on information about a shipment of stolen conos, arrested Cheslin Links, 32, and two other men for illegal possession of endangered plants. Links said they’d agreed to pick up a package from a courier shop for a friend and that they didn’t know its contents.

Copper mining used to be a staple in around Okiep, in Northern Cape. But as mines have shut down, and the area has been burdened by years of drought, succulent poaching has increased.
Spectacular flowers, including rare Conophytum, draw tourists to Namaqua National Park during peak bloom between August and September.

Links identifies as Rastafarian. He and several friends run a plant shop out of an old warehouse in Springbok. A Bob Marley banner hangs prominently on one wall. He tells me between customers that he has plant-buying contacts in China and that the money he makes from those deals helps him support his two younger brothers. People in China first contacted him through Facebook in October 2020, he says, and he now considers them to be friends. “We’re in contact every day. At the moment, we don’t talk plants. We talk daily life, TV shows.”

I meet Zebulon, who goes by his traditional Rastafarian name, at the radio station one afternoon shortly before he has to dash off to cover a political debate. Rastafarians’ plant expertise is why Chinese buyers recruit them to poach conos, he tells me. But, he adds, it’s an oversimplification to blame the Rastafarian community for these crimes. “It’s Rasta, but it’s not just Rasta—it’s the police too, who are supposed to be protecting the plants by law.”

Other people in and around Springbok also had told me they suspect that police may be involved in the succulent trade.

“We do have a corruption problem within the police and government,” says Mashay Gamieldien, a spokesperson for Northern Cape’s police force. “It is a priority and will not be tolerated.” One of du Toit’s officers—part of a four-person team working cono cases—was suspended last year for alleged corruption, but she says she can’t comment further because the criminal investigation is ongoing. There’s no evidence of any wrongdoing by du Toit, Gamieldien adds.

Karel du Toit, who leads the Springbok Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, in Northern Cape, has been a prominent figure in many arrests of Conophytum poachers.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
Du Toit searches for conos in sprawling Namaqua National Park. He says the numbers of Conophytum seem to have declined during the past year, which he blames on poaching.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

Du Toit, who also declined to comment on his colleague’s situation, says many rumours of police involvement in cono crime likely stem from the fact that conos confiscated by law enforcement rarely are replanted in the wild, leading to the mistaken belief that police sell them illegally. Conos recovered from poachers either die or are kept in secure greenhouses, police say. They’re almost never rewilded, largely out of concern that they could infect wild stock with pests picked up in greenhouses.

Conophytum poaching actually is deepening what’s known about these plants. In June 2021, at a farm in Western Cape, the other province where conditions favour the succulents, officers arrested a dozen men who had filled their bags with more than 4,000 Conophytum acutum. That haul was a big surprise, botanist Adam Harrower says. Until then, scientists thought there were only about a thousand of those plants in the wild, and none on this property.

‘A 24-hour job’

Succulent crime now takes up “more than 90 percent” of his unit’s time, du Toit says. “With murder cases you catch a guy,” he says, and more often than not, it’s case closed. But with cono poachers, that satisfaction is rare. He and his team sometimes find themselves arresting the same person multiple times when the suspect is out on bail, he says.

Making arrests for cono thefts also can be very difficult. Many farms don’t have cell phone reception, and when police get a call about suspected poachers, they must rush to what may be isolated, hard-to-reach places to have any chance of catching intruders.

Monitoring for poachers is “a 24-hour job,” Schreuder says. “We don’t have the time, means, or knowledge to fight them.” His neighbours, including Dawie Burden, are frustrated too. The average farmer here manages almost 50,000 acres, Burden says, and they’re alone out here. He asks, What are we supposed to do when poachers come?

After Schreuder’s arrest, Burden got together with about 20 other neighbours and assembled a WhatsApp group, including police officers, to share information in real time about sightings of unknown people or vehicles on their properties. That way, neighbours could swoop in to provide backup until police arrived on the scene. Burden also began soliciting funds for remote cameras to detect vehicles and record their license plates. But so far, he says, cash-strapped farmers haven’t been able to contribute much to that effort.

Koos Smit, who manages biodiversity at the Black Mountain Mining Complex near Springbok, says Burden wrote to him in May 2021 asking for money and security support to help in the fight. Smit says he had to decline because he was grappling with his own cono crisis: Poachers had been stealing Conophytum Burgeri (Burger’s onion), a succulent that grows exclusively at the complex, and his team was busy trying to prevent more thefts.

A security guard at Black Mountain Mining Complex, in Northern Cape, examines a cono that resembles an onion. Collectors recently have targeted this extremely rare species, which grows nowhere else.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith
Zinc mining at the Black Mountain Mining Complex is a major employer in this isolated region, where succulent poaching has been on the rise.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

Smit says an enthusiast overseas who saw specimens posted for sale online tipped them off. The informant, who asked not to be identified, citing fears for his safety and a desire to help law enforcement in the future, says he knew the plants were too big—and thus too old—to have been grown in a greenhouse. (Du Toit says 60 percent of the information his investigative team relies on comes from foreigners around the world.)

Smit’s group subsequently worked with South African officials to dig up some Burger’s onion at the mine and replant them in captivity. But the raids continued, and last June, July, and August, he says, poachers stole specimens of another rare cono on the property. Police are still hunting for the thieves. 

Crime and punishment

On average, it takes a year or longer for cases of alleged cono crime to come before the court, du Toit says. Cheslin Links has a scheduled court date in late March. If he and his associates are found guilty, the resulting fines will be calculated based on factors including their incomes and the value of the plants.

Judges don’t think of plant crimes the same way they do about the poaching of animals such as rhinos, even though some of these plants are critically endangered, du Toit says. Part of the difficulty, according to Dawie Burden and others, is that lawyers and judges know very little about plants or how disruptive succulent poaching is for communities like his.

Botanist Van Wyk agrees that plants don’t elicit the same visceral response as animals. “An animal breathes, and we can see it breathe, and it has eyes and makes sound. We have an emotional attachment to that, but we don’t have that for a plant, and that’s a problem in a court case,” he says.

Du Toit says it would be useful to have something like a “plant court”—just as South Africa has experimented with for rhino crimes—to speed up prosecutions and ensure familiarity with succulent offences.

Penalties for stealing conos are generally much stiffer for foreigners. In 2019, four Chinese poachers charged with illegal possession of thousands of succulents were each fined almost £7,600.

In another case, two South Korean nationals were each fined about £121,000 for stealing conos in Western Cape. One was deported and the other, Byungsu Kim, was extradited to California on charges that he and associates had stolen succulents from state parks along its northern coast and tried to export them illegally. On January 20, he was sentenced to two years in prison in the United States.

The debate over legalisation 

Just as South Africa once legalised the domestic rhino trade in an attempt to stem rhino poaching, it may consider legalising a limited trade in Conophytum.

The country’s official plan to reduce succulent poaching, devised by environmental groups and the government but not yet released to the public, says evaluating the risks and benefits of legalization is “vital.” It suggests studying the feasibility of large-scale artificial propagation of the plants. It also proposes other measures, such as setting up a task force to understand and help facilitate alternative livelihoods for people who might otherwise turn to plant poaching and encouraging “nature-based tourism.”

Many succulents grow near white quartz, which reflect sunlight, moderating nearby air temperatures during the broiling summers. The rock also collects condensation, which drips onto plants and helps sustain them.
Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

Legalising trade in some wildlife products, such as elephant ivory and rhino horn, has long been controversial. Opponents argue that it can have the unintended effect of increasing, not decreasing, demand, resulting in more illegal killings of the animals. But South Africa’s succulent plan suggests that a regulated trade could be different: The plants are valued for being alive, and they can be grown readily in nurseries.

Harrower is skeptical that legalisation will help. Conos, he says, already are cultivated widely in Southeast Asia and elsewhere—a legacy of earlier lax policies on exports of wild conos—yet poaching keeps increasing.

The plants grow very slowly—a 50-year-old cono may be no bigger than a walnut, depending on the species—so inevitably, he says, the larger ones that collectors want are wild. Beyond the plant’s size, there’s no way to be certain that a Conophytum for sale in a plant store didn’t come from the wild. Conos quickly “shed the battle scars of nature”—sun-weathered leaves or dirt mounds—Harrower says. The only other clue might be if the plant blooms at seemingly odd times of the year that match the period when it flowers in the wild.

For now, teams at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and elsewhere are collecting and categorising seeds from Conophytum and other succulents in partnership with the United Kingdom-based Millennium Seed Bank. The bank is an international conservation effort to ensure plant biodiversity by collecting more than two billion seeds from the world’s flora.  

A rare opportunIty

One day, Harrower, Smith, and I take a walk on the farm in Western Cape where the thousands of Conophytum acutum had been poached in June 2021. The family who owns it—a couple with three kids—shows us around. (They asked not to be identified for their safety.) Suddenly, an old shoebox hidden under a bush catches my eye. In it is a potato chip bag holding three Conophytum acutum—possibly discarded because they were so small.

“We can replant them!” Harrower exclaims. The succulents haven’t been exposed to foreign pests, and it had rained recently, so the soil is somewhat moist. We also know roughly where they’d come from. 

Harrower sets to work searching for the perfect site. “The super micro-climates of each population of plants is very important,” he says. Using a screwdriver from his car, he scrapes out three shallow holes in the dirt, not even an inch deep.

He places the little plants carefully in the ground, surrounding them with small rocks and sand—to “help keep them from getting poached”—as he pats them into place.

Harrower crouches for a minute and surveys his work before brushing the sand off his jeans. Smiling, he says this is likely the first time poached conos have been returned to the wild. As we walk back to the car, I turn back for a final glimpse of the rehomed conos, hoping they’ll survive until the next rainy season. But they’re already lost to sight. They blend right in.

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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