Plants Can be Poached Too!

Saving Succulents

There’s no doubt that succulents make excellent additions to your home. They brighten up any room and are usually pretty easy to care for since they don’t require a lot of watering. But collecting them can sometimes be problematic. Most of the succulents for sale at typical garden or plant stores are fine, but if you’re seeking out a particularly rare succulent from an online seller, chances are that plant was poached.  

The succulent trade is no joke – for example, in Mexico, there’s reason to believe that cactus smuggling is the 3rd biggest money-making racket, falling behind drugs and guns. It’s a tempting business for organized crime rings because it’s not as risky. But if we stop creating a demand for rare succulents and advocate for stricter policies, maybe these incredible species will have a chance at surviving in their native habitats. 

When people think of conservation, illegal wildlife trade often springs to mind. Perhaps you think of elephants being poached for their tusks or pangolins for their scales. But did you know plants are poached too? Plant poaching is just as much of a threat to biodiversity and needs to be addressed as such. So why does plant poaching receive far less attention than animal poaching? Part of this stems from “plant blindness” – it’s the human tendency to broadly ignore the entire plant kingdom. In other words, it is the inability to see or notice the plants in your own environment. This is an issue because it can potentially lead to the extinction of many different plant species, especially succulents, which we couldn’t live without. 

Exclusion of plants in conversations about poaching, illegal wildlife trade and conservation is problematic because plants are a vital part of ecosystems all around the world. When one succulent is plucked from a field, it affects an entire food web and harms the balance of the ecosystem. And what’s really concerning is that poachers usually target endangered species because those make the most money. Many of the ecosystems that succulents live in have been stable for millions of years, so for poachers to wipe out an entire succulent species so quickly is devastating for our planet.  

The rise of social media and online sellers makes matters worse. Online sellers make purchasing succulents highly accessible and social media platforms perpetuate the demand for rarer, more “valuable” succulents by allowing users to show off pictures of their prized collections. Comparison is almost inevitable when scrolling through social media, so oftentimes when another succulent collector sees someone with a rare new succulent, others will also want to add it to their collection. But because they are usually sourced from poachers, this practice is unsustainable. Social media platforms and online sellers are not doing enough to prevent this illegal trade. It’s time we shift away from our plant blindness so that we can spread awareness about the harms of succulent poaching. 

One example of plant blindness is seen on Instagram post reporting options. While Instagram gives users the ability to report a post if it implies the sale of “illegal or regulated goods,” the feature only refers to potential evidence of the trade of live animals or animal parts – not plants. This is a wasted opportunity to prevent plant poaching that is enabled by social media. If you see someone post about the latest rare addition to their succulent collection, try asking them where they got it and inform them about the harmful impacts of the succulent trade. 

You don’t have to give up succulents altogether, just research their origins before buying. The next time you purchase a succulent from somewhere other than a typical plant or garden store, do your best to educate yourself about where it is coming from and look for signs that might show it was poached. If the plant looks beaten up, has insect bites or bleach marks, it likely was not grown in a greenhouse. Owning succulents is not necessarily the problem. Having succulents in homes can actually connect a lot of people to regions and habitats around the world – so long as they are sustainably sourced.  

This blog was a collaboration between experts at the Global Center for Species Survival, including Plants & Fungi Conservation Coordinator Cátia Canteiro and Global Center intern Ella Sarles. 

Published April 19, 2023 

Cátia Canteiro

Cátia Canteiro is the Plants & Fungi Conservation Coordinator for the Global Center for Species Survival.

Learn more about plant conservation and Cátia.