Illegal arms. Illicit drugs. Elephant tusks. Garden plants. Which of these doesn’t belong? The world of smuggling and black market crime brings to mind a miasma of grim items and images. But the fleshy plants from which we get aloe vera skin lotion isn’t one of them.
Try telling that to California wildlife officials. They’ve uncovered an international crime ring involved in the theft and illegal sale of succulents!
Besides being attractive garden plants, succulents are used in a variety of medicinal ways. Some succulents are even tasty in salad. But are they valuable enough to warrant the risks associated with theft? Turns out, they are.
Black market thieves slip into wild landscapes in Northern California and steal succulents to sell to a thriving underground market in Asia. There’s growing desire for these squishy plants among middle class families in China and Korea. And this has increased the market value of the plants. A single succulent can fetch up to $50.
With all the injustice in the world, it may be easy for someone to brush off the theft of these pretty plants as nothing serious. But in Genesis 3:6, Adam and Eve faced a similar choice in the Garden when—in disobedience to God—they stole forbidden fruit. Their seemingly small sin had enormous consequences.
Authorities didn’t know about the scheme until a woman at the post office spotted the smugglers. Something seemed odd about the 60 packages the man was about to ship. Instead of keeping quiet, she boldly asked: “What are you shipping?” The man with the packages made little effort to hide his crime. “Shhhh,” he whispered. “Something very valuable.” He then pointed in the direction of the ocean.
That exchange was enough to inspire the woman to call the authorities and report the conversation. Her suspicions were correct. U.S. Customs and Border Protection x-rayed the boxes. They found them packed with a variety of succulents called Dudley farinosa.
Since December, state officials have arrested suspects from China and Korea in three separate incidents along the California coast. One raid on a parked minivan on Highway 1 along the Mendocino coast uncovered 2,300 succulents. Officials arrested another suspect staying in a cheap hotel in Trinidad, California, who had possession of 2,334 plants.
Investigations will continue as new tips arrive, says Patrick Foy, a spokesman with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Once it hit our radar screen, and we looked more for it, we discovered that it’s bigger than we thought,” he says.