Rare plants hidden in toys


When South African officials at Cape Town International Airport came across cardboard boxes labelled “toys” being shipped to China, they became suspicious.

China is known for exporting toys all over the world, not for importing them.

The boxes were opened for a sample. Instead of the promised toddler cooking set or a board game, they found bundles of endangered succulents, carefully wrapped in toilet paper.

A total of 23,000 plants, known as conophytum, were found in that shipment in April 2022, researchers from the South African Police Service’s Endangered Species Unit told the BBC.

Authorities were on alert after a courier company was nearly ripped off by the same trick a few months earlier.

About a year later, authorities at the same airport came across cardboard boxes labeled as mushrooms, which were also being exported to China.

When they opened the bags, they saw bags normally used for onions filled with succulents, about 12,000 of them.

Shrubland in the Northern Cape Province, South AfricaShrubland in the Northern Cape Province, South Africa

The area known as the Succulent Karoo is known for its extraordinary biodiversity (Getty Images)

“It never ends,” said one police investigator. “You discover one method, and they come up with another smuggling idea.”

According to Traffic, an international organization that investigates wildlife crime, more than a million illegally harvested succulents from 650 different species have been seized by authorities since 2019. The plants were en route to markets abroad via southern Africa.

It has been reported that around 3,000 traded succulents are intercepted by law enforcement agencies every week in South Africa.

The growing demand for ornamental plants is creating new markets, particularly in East Asia. According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, many African countries are now involved in supplying the plants, mainly from the wild.

This has threatened biodiversity in regions such as the Succulent Karoo – an area so named by the World Wildlife Fund that covers vast dry zones of South Africa and Namibia. It is home to more than 6,000 succulent species – 40% of which are found nowhere else, conservation groups say.

One of the most smuggled succulent species is the conophytum, several subspecies of which are subject to trade restrictions.

Succulents found in an onion bag at Cape Town Airport, South AfricaSucculents found in an onion bag at Cape Town Airport, South Africa

Cape Town Airport officials found these succulents in bags of onions, labelled as mushrooms, in March 2023 (South African Police Service)

This is because they are critically endangered or threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

According to wildlife trade experts, postal and courier services have become an easy way to smuggle small plants such as succulents.

A recent report from the World Customs Organization (WCO) found that the most common method of smuggling flora and fauna is to pack and send them in small parcels, accounting for 43% of all seizures in 2022, up from 17% the previous year.

“There are many different ways criminals can hide illegal goods in the mail. One common method is using children’s toys,” said Dawn Wilkes, postal security program manager for the Universal Postal Union, a worldwide association of postal services.

She told the BBC that such shipments generally came from Africa or Asia.

Frithia pulchra, tropical succulentFrithia pulchra, tropical succulent

This is an example of a succulent from South Africa that is on the IUCN Red List (Getty Images)

And customs officials know all too well that drug traffickers are cunning.

Last March, officials in the northeastern city of Hai Phong, Vietnam, discovered an interesting shipment from Nigeria.

The containers were filled with what appeared to be black horns. Upon closer inspection, they were ivory tusks that had been painted black.

Experts who investigate the illegal wildlife trade say it is unusual for tusks to be covered in paint. In the past, however, Vietnamese authorities have seized ivory hidden in shipments of cow horns.

During the seizure in Hai Phong, approximately 550 pieces of elephant tusks were seized, weighing a total of nearly 1,600 kg.

It led to the arrest of two people in Nigeria in connection with the shipmentsaid the Wildlife Justice Commission, which worked with the country’s customs officials on the case.

The illegal ivory trade mainly affects Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe and is one of the main causes of the decline in African elephant numbers, which have declined by about 90% over the past 30 years.

The African forest elephant is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The endangered shark species off the coast of Africa are also proving difficult to protect. Their fins are an important ingredient in shark fin soup, a sought-after delicacy in many parts of the world.

There are over 500 registered shark species and trade in many of them is permitted. However, the sale and purchase of parts of about 60 shark species is restricted because they are threatened with extinction.

Blacktip sharks pictured in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South AfricaBlacktip sharks pictured in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa

It is difficult to control the shark trade because there are so many species (Getty Images)

And this is the loophole that wildlife traders are exploiting, wildlife trade researchers say.

In recent years, several cases have been identified in South Africa where customs were confronted with shipments containing a mix of both legal and illegal shark fins.

“Criminals will claim that the endangered species are in fact the legally traded species,” Sarah Vincent, an expert at Traffic, told the BBC.

“So it’s critical that law enforcement officials know how to distinguish between what’s what.”

She said this was done in South Africa using Traffic’s 3D digital technology.

As wildlife trade cases become increasingly complex and there are increasing numbers of ways to conceal the facts, it is important that law enforcement agencies share information with their regional and international counterparts.

For Elizabeth John, senior wildlife researcher at Traffic in Southeast Asia, a united front against traffickers is the only way to confront them.

Over the years, more information has been shared, leading to an increase in the number of attacks.

According to a WCO report, seizures in 2022 were 10% higher than in 2020 and even 56% higher than in 2021.

But the increased attacks also point to an alarming trend.

“These statistics suggest that illegal wildlife and timber trade remains widespread, and that traders are using a variety of evolving techniques to circumvent the laws in force that prohibit this illegal crime,” the WCO said.

According to wildlife trade experts, the challenge is to provide customs and border control agencies with sufficient resources, equipment and training so they can stay ahead of the traders’ ever-changing tactics.

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