A Pandemic Treaty to Save the Succulents?

Dudleya, a North American genus of small succulent plants, sometimes called live-forevers, are being ripped from their habitat and smuggled out of the country for high profits.[1] One recent smuggler was apprehended with $150,000 worth of live Dudleya bound for Asia.[2]

Just as poachers supply illegal markets of elephant ivory and rhino horn, poachers also supply illegal trade of plants, though the plants trade often receives little attention.[3] Poachers routinely illegally harvest the plants, particularly cactuses and other succulents[4], from their natural habitats and export them all over the world in exchange for stunning amounts of money.[5] Recently, one poacher, after serving a prison sentence in the United States for a scheme to commercially export Dudleya plants to South Korea under fraudulent pretenses, traveled to South Africa to harvest more plants and was arrested attempting to execute a similar conspiracy.[6] In another recent and unrelated plant smuggling bust, authorities in Italy found more than 1,000 of the world’s rarest cactuses, likely bound for Greece and Romania where international customs are more lax, worth an estimated $1.2 million.[7] 

This pervasive, complex, and lucrative trade is driven by the demand created by private collectors, but also by the demand for plants to be used as ingredients in essential oils, medicines, and perfumes.[8] Succulents, in particular, gained popularity on social media for their striking appearance and their reputation for being low maintenance.[9] Cacti and succulents face a perfect storm of factors with regard to poaching—on one hand they are ideal for collecting, given that species are highly endemic, creating a market driven by rarity, but on the other hand, are slow-growing and therefore susceptible to over-harvesting, meaning that high demand may destroy an entire population, and perhaps whole species, very quickly.[10]

And yet, despite the demand for the darling Dudleyas, plants often play second fiddle to animals in law and policy.[11] ‘Plant Blindness’ is the term for the universal tendency to view plants as static part of the environment supporting animal life, as opposed to organisms playing a unique and critical role in the ecosystem in their own right.[12] In fact, of the 38,700 threatened species that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”) protects, 32,800 are plants—an astounding 85 percent.[13] Yet, the CITES logo resembles an elephant.[14]

            Plant blindness causes plants to routinely get little protection under existing environmental laws, despite their foundational role in virtually every ecosystem.[15] For example, plants receive far fewer critical habitat designations than threatened and endangered animals.[16] And, this lack of protections continues despite our knowledge that a single plant extinction may have an outsized effect on ecosystems, as a single plant may support as many as twenty additional species, such as insects, bacteria, fungi, and other animals.[17] Therefore, despite CITES intention to protect plant life, because each member state is exclusively responsible for the enforcement of the treaty through the development of civil and criminal penalties in domestic legislation, wildlife protection laws often overlook plants, undermining the very purpose of the treaty.[18]

In early February 2022, the European Union began pushing for a new ban on wildlife markets as one component of a new international treaty to prevent future pandemics.[19] The most accepted explanation of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the virus jumped from an animal—perhaps a bat or a pangolin—in an open air market of wild animals in Wuhan, China.[20] These markets, notorious for unhygienic conditions for both meat and wild animals, pose a very high risk of disease.[21] This is the threat has brought these markets to the attention of European regulators.[22]

However, regulating “wildlife” markets could also be an opportunity to address the ongoing global problem of illicit trade in plants. This treaty could be one measure in disrupting the usual practice of deprivileging plant life compared to animal life in codifying governmental laws defining the “wildlife.”[23]  Plants have long been left out of the definition of “wildlife,” leaving them out of critical conversations about conservation priorities, grant funding, and policy solutions related to the illegal wildlife trade.[24]

Accordingly, plant traffickers are rarely caught or prosecuted, and therefore, trade takes place openly—including online ads with disclaimers that the plants do not come with the necessary permits for legal trade.[25] The illegal plant trade is booming across China, Korea, Thailand, Europe, America, and Japan.[26] While including the plant trade in the designation of “wildlife markets” in such a treaty would not solve the pervasive problem of plant blindness and the many challenges facing trafficked plant species, it could be one small, incremental step to saving not just the Dudleya and species like it, but the ecosystems that depend on them, and by extension the biodiversity of our planet.[27]

[1] Protect California Dudleya, https://www.cnps.org/conservation/dudleya-protection, (last visited Feb.13,2022); Nick Jensen & Patrick Foy, Plant Poachers Threaten California’s Biodiversity, CalMatters, (July 23, 2021), https://calmatters.org/commentary/2021/07/plant-poachers-threaten-californias-biodiversity/.

[2] Sravasti Dasgupta, International Plant Poacher Who Traveled to America 50 Times ‘to Steal Succulents’ is Jailed in the US, Independent (Feb. 21, 2022), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/south-korea-plant-poacher-succulents-jailed-b1997754.html.

[3] Jared D. Margulies, Leigh-Anne Bullough, Amy Hinsley, Daniel J. Ingram, Carly Cowell, Bárbara Goettsch, Bente B. Klitgård, Anita Lavorgna, Pablo Sinovas & Jacob Phelps, Illegal wildlife trade and the persistence of “plant blindness”, 1 Plants, People, Planet 173, 174 (2019).

[4] Rachel Nuwer, Global Cactus Traffickers Are Cleaning Out the Deserts, The N.Y. Times (May 20, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/20/science/cactus-trafficking-chile.html.

[5] See generally Id.

[6] Dasgupta, supra note 2.

[7] Rachel Nuwer, supra note 5.

[8] Margulies, supra note 3 at 174.

[9] Rachel Nuwer, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Jacob Phelps, Amy Hinsley & Jared Maguiles, Illegal wildlife trade endangers plants — but few are listening, ICUN (Oct. 9, 2018), https://www.iucn.org/news/species/201810/illegal-wildlife-trade-endangers-plants-few-are-listening.

[12] Id.

[13] The CITES Species, Convention on Int’l Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, https://cites.org/eng/disc/species.php (last visited Feb. 16, 2022).

[14] Id.

[15] Katie Young & Karrigan Bork, Protecting Plants under the Existing Endangered Species Act, 45 HARV. ENVTL. L. REV. 151, 152 (2021).

[16] James Ming Chen, The Fragile Menagerie: Biodiversity Loss, Climate Change, and the Law, 93 Ind. L.J. 303, 315 (2018).

[17] Young & Bork, supra note 15 at 158.

[18] Jonathan P. Kazmar, The International Illegal Plant and Wildlife Trade: Biological Genocide, 6 U. C. Davis J. INT’L L. & POL’Y 105, 110 (2000).

[19] Francesco Guarascio, Exclusive: EU wants pandemic treaty to ban wildlife markets, reward virus detection – source, Reuters, (Feb. 9, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/exclusive-eu-wants-pandemic-treaty-ban-wildlife-markets-reward-virus-detection-2022-02-09/.

[20] The Economist, Where did the novel coronavirus come from? The Economist (May 2, 2020), https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/05/02/where-did-the-novel-coronavirus-come-from?; Vanda Felbab-Brown, Preventing pandemics through biodiversity conservation and smart wildlife trade regulation, in Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity (Brookings, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/research/preventing-pandemics-through-biodiversity-conservation-and-smart-wildlife-trade-regulation/.

[21] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Preventing pandemics through biodiversity conservation and smart wildlife trade regulation, in Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity (Brookings, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/research/preventing-pandemics-through-biodiversity-conservation-and-smart-wildlife-trade-regulation/.

[22] Guarascio, supra note 19.

[23] Margulies et al., supra note 3 at 179.

[24] Phelps, Hinsley & Maguiles, supra note 11.

[25] Rachel Nuwer, supra note 5.

[26] Id.

[27] Nick Jensen & Patrick Foy, Plant Poachers Threaten California’s Biodiversity, CalMatters, (July 23, 2021),  https://calmatters.org/commentary/2021/07/plant-poachers-threaten-californias-biodiversity/.