There are 1,480 living species of cacti, all but one indigenous to the Americas. The journal Nature Plants recently studied the level of danger to almost every species on earth––the largest study of any plant taxon––and the alarming result was 31 percent are threatened, the fifth most of any taxonomic group, just behind amphibians and corals. Loss of habitat to humans and the clumsy plodding of livestock factored highly. No surprise. But what shocked the report’s author was that the largest extinction threat comes from horticulture, specifically the illegal collection and trade of cacti. ... Last October, Chinese and German customs agents busted a smuggling ring and seized 1,250 plants, some rare and endangered cacti. As might be expected, there are few scholarly reports investigating the cactus black market. One such report, called “Prickly Trade” (the cactus world is full of egregious puns), estimated that in one three-year period people illegally plucked about 100,000 cacti out of the Texas wild or smuggled them over the Mexican border. That was in 2003. Then Internet commerce arrived. A report from 2012 monitored just 24 online cacti sellers for 1,000 purchases. These were not just any 1,000 cacti. Each was listed as an “Appendix I” specie by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which are plants threatened with extinction. To trade any of these, a seller needs a permit. Of the 1,000 cacti researchers monitored, the report found at least 90 percent had traded hands illegally.
In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia — the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi — who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across state lines. ... Cornett went into business for the same reason poachers are keen to rob him. The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. These days, most ginseng is mass-produced on large, pesticide-sprayed farms under the artificial shade of wood and fabric canopies. Wild ginseng, which tends to grow in temperate forests, is considered more potent and fetches a higher price. Plants like Cornett’s, cultivated in the woods, are closer to wild than to conventionally farmed ginseng. ... Dwindling supply and robust demand have inflated wild American ginseng’s value. In 2014, according to public and academic data, the 81,500 pounds that were legally exported commanded an average wholesale price of $800 per dried pound. That was almost 15 times more than the going rate for farmed roots. Nearly all exports go to China, where a burgeoning middle class is willing to pay marked-up retail prices — sometimes even thousands of dollars per pound. ... Scientists believe ginseng is native to both East Asia and North America because some 70 million years ago, the two land masses were part of a single megacontinent known as Laurasia