South Africa’s Vanishing Succulents

Poaching in the country’s arid southwest is putting endemic plants at risk of extinction.

The heart of South Africa is immense, desolate, and mercilessly dry. Beneath the vast sun-scorched sky, seemingly endless plains shimmer in the heat. The only sound is the breeze wheezing through dust-dry twigs and low-growing shrubs. This landscape appears hostile to life itself. A closer look, however, reveals a thriving ecosystem.

The species filling it may be small, understated, and often hidden from plain sight, but in the Succulent Karoo biome, plant life is tenacious. The region’s 6,356 documented plant species — including some 1,600 succulents — have evolved over millennia to withstand the harsh environment.

succulent south africa

Around 40 percent of the succulent species in the Succulent Karoo biome are endemic, growing only in small patches in this dry landscape and nowhere else in the world. Photo of Schlechteranthus maximilianii by Alexey Yakovlev.

The world’s only entirely arid biodiversity hotspot, the Succulent Karoo biome stretches from Luderitz in Namibia in the northwest, down and across the West Coast of South Africa, and then south-eastwards towards the Little Karoo, a plateau basin. Around 40 percent of the succulent species in the biome are endemic, growing only in small patches in this dry landscape and nowhere else in the world. These seemingly insignificant plants are vital components in their ecosystems, especially when it comes to preventing soil erosion.

While these succulents have long faced the stresses of drought, fire, and the environmental degradation caused by excessive sheep grazing, recently a new and bigger threat has emerged: illegal plant harvesting or plant poaching.

Small numbers of plants have long been illegally removed from the region by over-enthusiastic collectors, but organized criminal groups have driven a significant spike in poaching recently. Experts from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) attribute the rise in succulent demand to the Covid-19 pandemic. As people stuck at home turned to social media for entertainment and inspiration, a new wave of “plant influencers” emerged, showcasing exotic succulents and fuelling a desire for unique and rare varieties.

SANBI estimates that around 1.5 million wild plants have been removed from this sensitive arid environment over just the past three years. Most of these plants are long-lived (20 to 50 years) and very slow-growing, making it almost impossible to find large specimens outside the wild. This makes them highly coveted by collectors, who are willing to pay hefty fees on the illegal market for the mature plants.

Succulent Karoo

The species filling it may be small, understated, and often hidden from plain sight, but in the Succulent Karoo biome, plant life is tenacious. Photo of Succulent Karoo by Alexey Yakovlev.

south african succulent

The biggest poaching target in the area has been plants from the group Conophytums, of which there are 190 species in South Africa. Since 2022, 85 percent of Conophytum species have been listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. Photo of Conophytum breve by Alexey Yakovlev.

​The South African National Biodiversity Institute estimates that around 1.5 million wild plants have been removed from this sensitive arid environment over just the past three years. Photo of Meyerophytum meyeri Alexey Yakovlev.

The impact of poaching can be hard to see, but it’s taking a real toll. These succulents play crucial roles in their ecosystems, providing shelter for wildlife and acting as a ground cover that combats erosion. The effect of their loss is, therefore, devastating to the fragile Karoo environment.

“Once an area is disturbed, the plants are unlikely to come back anytime soon … and only if there are seeds left,” says Katherine Forsythe, a Succulent Karroo Programme Manager with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) SA Land Programme.

The biggest poaching target in the area has been plants from the group Conophytums, of which there are 190 species in South Africa. The name Conophytum comes from the Latin word conus, which means cone, and the Greek work phytum, which means plant. Conophytum range between 0.25 and 2 inches in length and resemble small, plump, split pebbles. Their soft bodies are like living cushions nestled amongst rocks. While some are perfectly round, others are more lopsided or elongated. Their colors range from greens and browns to a variegated mix.

Over 94 percent of Conophytum species are endemic to the Northern and Western Cape Provinces of South Africa, with the remaining 6 percent found in southwestern Namibia. Since 2022, 85 percent of Conophytum species have been listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. “I’m not sure that there are too many other groups of plants anywhere in the world that suffer from this level of risk,” says Forsythe.

Some 95 percent of the Karoo in which most of the Succulent Karoo biome falls — is privately owned, which means poaching also impacts the people who live there. “A lot of landowners have a very special connection to the land that they look after, that they see themselves as personally helping to safeguard the nature on their land,” says Forsythe, who has a long history of working with landowners and stewardship sites, privately or communally owned plots that are managed with SANBI to support conservation efforts. “So ... it’s incredibly heart-breaking for them to hear about these things taking place”.

Petro Van Zyl, senior manager of advocacy at Cape Nature, the nature conservation authority for South Africa’s Western Cape Province, says that direct interaction between landowners and poachers is rare, simply because of the vastness of the landscape and the low population density. The Karoo has a population density of around two people per square kilometre. However, interactions between locals and poachers do happen, especially when large groups of poachers (between 15 and 30 individuals) invade properties. Landowners then experience “the other side effects of poachers intruding on their land, including house burglaries, loss of small livestock, and damage to fence lines, and some have had their lives threatened.”

To protect their lands and its biodiversity, they are advised to improve their communication and collaboration with neighboring farms, local police, and their local conservation agency. This communication network allows them to quickly report suspicious activities. In South Africa, suspected plant poaching can also be reported to the stock-theft unit of the police.

Related Reading
The Case of the Stolen Succulents

Native hipster plants are at center of California poaching crisis

Caring for Cacti

The illicit global trade in one the most threatened taxa of life reveals how similar passions animate both collectors and conservationists

But reporting poachers is an imperfect solution. The people taking the plants are mostly unemployed and impoverished people. They have very few other socio-economic opportunities. Their reward for succulents, paid by the kingpins who smuggle the plants to places like Asia, Europe, and the United States, is only a fraction of what the plants are sold for to collectors. As Van Zyl from CapeNature explains: “When caught they are issued with fines and other legal fees that must be covered, which brings an added financial burden to the family members of poachers.”

To address the growing threat of plant poaching to the natural landscape, endangered species, and local communities, the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI), the WWF, non-government organizations, and government agencies came together in 2021 to create the National Response Strategy and Action Plan. Together they pioneered a two-pronged approach to tackle the illegal succulent trade in South Africa while simultaneously promoting sustainable socio-economic development. Among other objectives, their plan aims to establish well-managed succulent collections outside their natural habitats; streamline regulations to enhance compliance and sustainable use of succulents; involve local communities in conservation efforts; and explore options for a legal succulent market that fosters socio-economic development. As is often the case with such efforts, the biggest challenge is to obtain enough funding to ensure the long-term sustainability of their planned projects.

In the meantime, plant-lovers around the world can help anti-poaching efforts by avoiding illegally obtained plants. That means shopping at commercial nurseries, which generally get their plants from ethical growers who have permits to collect and propagate plants legally. They can also report those selling plants that show signs of being collected from the wild. According to SANBI, telltale signs include succulents that are unusually large or have non-uniform growth; incomplete root systems; indications of scars, dents, and holes on plants; signs of natural damage such as from sun exposure; plants that are accompanied by lichens and seeds; and plants that are packaged unprofessionally. When the same type of plant is available in a wide range of sizes from the same seller, that can also be a sign of poaching.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

South Africa’s Vanishing Succulents

Poaching in the country’s arid southwest is putting endemic plants at risk of extinction.

Nina Green

Lawmakers Take Aim at Community Air Monitoring in Louisiana

Republican legislators have blunted the impact of citizen-led air monitoring, which is set to receive millions from the feds.

Terry L. Jones Floodlight

For the Love of Leopards

Conservationists — and their cameras — fight for big cats in Central Asia’s Badhyz Reserve.

Panagioti Tsolkas

Young Alaskans Sue State Over Fossil Fuel Project

Plaintiffs claim $38.7bn gas export project, which would triple state’s greenhouse gas emissions, infringes constitutional rights.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Elevating Edible Insects and Protecting a Valued African Caterpillar

Food entrepreneurs seek to grow the market for southern Africa's mopane worms while promoting sustainable harvesting.

John Gaisford

Whale Snot, Delivered by Drone

Researchers are using aerial vehicles to study infectious disease in Arctic cetaceans.

Brynn Pedrick