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3 men charged in poaching of US$600,000 worth of succulents in California, say officials

[CALIFORNIA] Three men were charged after they attempted to export more than US$600,000 worth of wild succulents, described by one expert as "tiny and cute" plants, that they poached from state parks in Northern California, the US Justice Department said.

The men — all South Korean nationals — arrived in Los Angeles in October 2018 with plans to harvest the plants in Northern California and ship them to South Korea, the department said in a statement on Friday. They were charged with conspiracy to knowingly export plants from the United States that had been taken in violation of California law, and attempting to export plants taken in violation of state law.

The men, Byungsu Kim, 44; Youngin Back, 45; and Bong Jun Kim, 44, drove to several state parks and pulled the succulents out of the ground, officials said.

The plants, which are known as Dudleyas and have sage coloured leaves that slowly unfurl in a rose pattern, were transported to a nursery run by Byungsu Kim in San Diego, according to court documents. Byungsu Kim and Back have fled the country and Bong Jun Kim was in federal custody.

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"Smugglers are known to harvest wild, living Dudleya plants from the ground in Northern California and export the live plants to Asia, where they are sold on the black market," the statement said. "Native Dudleya plants from coastal habitats in Northern California are particularly valuable in Asia due to their unique physical features, including the colour and shape of their leaves."

The authorities said they seized nearly 664 pounds of poached plants estimated to be worth US$602,950.

Patrick Foy of the Law Enforcement Division of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said poaching of succulents started a few years ago. In 2018, officers replanted more than 2,000 of them in the cliffs of Mendocino and Humboldt counties that had been seized during a poaching investigation.

The boom in demand for the succulents coincides with a growing interest in plants by millennials.

"They want to have the plant that isn't native to where they are or the plant that people see via social media," Hilton Carter, author of Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants, said. "In this situation, a plant has become so popular that the idea that someone does not have it makes people go the extra mile."

In 2017 — when officials began to see poaching of the plants on the California coast — 30 per cent of gardening households were made up of 18 to 34-year-olds, according to a study by GardenResearch.com, a division of the National Gardening Association.

Mr Carter said succulents have a wide appeal because they are easy to care for and small enough to amass a large collection in a small apartment or house. "Succulents tend to stay tiny and cute," he said.

Capt Foy said that the poaching is driven mainly for profit. The plants thrive in a niche climate in Northern California and could do well in a similar setting but would probably not survive after being exported to places like China or South Korea.

"Our best estimate is that these plants are going to be dead in six months to a year in many of the places that they are going," he said. "People should go to the local Home Depot and go buy a succulent for US$4.99 like I've done."

NYTIMES