Important Point about plant conservation

It was recently brought to our attention (and we had been aware of this long before) that our mentioning of specific farms (and other locations including trails in national parks like Addo) could help plant poachers to find rare or sought-after succulents that they might otherwise have difficulty finding.  This is certainly not the intention of our webpage and any readers should know that removal of ANY plants from a farm without the owners permission is not allowed.  We are uncertain of the exact legal restrictions on succulent plants within South Africa, but most plants cannot be exported from most countries without proper permits.  For example, cacti of any species cannot be imported or exported due to CITES restrictions, and something similar exists with regard to South African succulents.

The intent of our website is to encourage responsible tourism and education related to all aspects of natural history and we very much discourage any efforts to remove plants from their habitats.  This is usually illegal, and in any case unethical and irresponsible.

Specifically, related to the farms mentioned on our website, the owners of these farms want to encourage visitors to enjoy their natural environments; some websites mention that hiking trails exist for visitors to see the vegetation including succulents.   One farm’s website actually has a link to our website.

There are two schools of thought about encouraging tourism to see anything in nature. One schools favors limiting information to minimize the adverse impacts of public visitation.  The other viewpoint is that only through public appreciation will attitudes change and the public support strong conservation measures (that might be costly).  We encountered this clash of perspectives  more than twenty five years ago, at the University of Mexico, when we met with a senior biologist.  We mentioned to her that we had gone to a particular bat cave (it had a locked gate and was open to the public only with a local guide) and that it was very interesting and more public awareness of such a place would be good.  Her response was – why should the public know?   They would only go and mess it up!   She was adamant that the public would act irresponsibly and that it was better to keep it secret.  This despite the fact that visits to the cave required a local guide.

Making nature available to the public has only become more of an issue since the advent of the internet.  Now, if one mentions the exact position of a rare species it risks being removed from its location by unscrupulous people who want to sell “rarity”.  Rarity of almost anything (as with art), whether a rock, an insect, a reptile, or a plant,  attracts collectors that must have that rare item.  And some are willing to pay high prices to have something rare – and this encourages field collecting until the rarity “disappears”.

There are several strategies to deal with the poaching of rare plants.  One is to limit information about localities where they might be found.  This can lead to the average person not seeing the plant, but the poachers very often will find them, since “professional” plant thieves often have associates who communicate their “secret” localities among themselves. (This behavior existed long before the internet era.)  Plant poachers still exit – but to maintain rarity of a plant on the illicit market they cannot collect large numbers of such plants.

The best strategy for reducing plant poaching is to grow the desirable species in large enough quantities that few people will go through the trouble and risk of being caught poaching plants.  For example, huge California greenhouses satisfy much of the demand of the “average” US succulent plant grower.  There are also specialized nurseries focusing on less-common succulents.  Still, some succulents are not available through legal sources – there are just too many succulent plant species in nature and not all of them grow well in “captivity”.   Also, some plants grow very slowly and most greenhouses will not want to grow such plants.  To obtain a mature plant may take 50 years – so it is easier to take it from the field (of course, until they are all gone).

While we mostly mention private farms on our webpage, we also describe national parks where succulents can easily be seen, including the Richtersveld, Tanqua Karoo and Addo National Parks.  Succulents are easily seen in many Cape Nature reserves as well.  We think that this is similar to mentioning that Kruger and Mokala National Parks have Rhinos.  Will this help poachers find them?

If websites like ours don’t have enough information to allow travelers to find locations to see plants in habitat, such sites are not going to be able to encourage “botanical tourism”.  During our first few trips to South Africa we mostly explored for plants along the side of the road, since South African fences are sturdy and difficult to cross.  In addition, farmers in South Africa (probably like everywhere) are very protective of their farm animals and are suspicious of strangers on their property.  Most Cape Nature reserves and national parks don’t focus on their succulent plants (with a few exceptions) and many have dangerous game that prevent you from leaving your vehicle and are thus not suitable for botanical exploration on foot.  This is why our focus on private farms is important to encourage nature tourism.

Although we saw many succulent plants on our early trips, it was mostly next to the road which severely limits what you can see.  Once we discovered that many farms rent cottages and encourage farm stays, we shifted to this form of accommodation wherever possible.  Now we can explore the farms (many of which are mostly natural landscapes) looking for succulents – with the owners knowledge of what we are doing.  We always mention to the farm owners why we are there (botanical photography and exploration) and about our website.   The farms we mention specifically encourage this – through their building of hiking trails, publishing their own plant guides or through comments on their website.  We highlight these farms because, despite the widespread availability of good accommodation in southern Africa, many are simply not suitable for naturalists who want to see nature.   Just as birdwatchers prefer to stay at birding lodges, plant explorers want to know where they can find suitable environments where they can see and photograph plants in habitat.

Any visitor to these farms should be aware that the owners and workers are aware of your comings and goings; they do tend to monitor discreetly what you are up to.  We (and all legitimate visitors) should be happy with this and we try, when the opportunity exists, to make the owners aware of what we find of interest.  This, in turn can help them advertise their farms for a community of botanical explorers that most tourism advertising ignores.

It is possible that unscrupulous individuals could stay at the farms we mention and use these as base camps to poach plants.  This risk exists with any other plant or animal as well and it exists equally inside national parks and reserves.  Plant poaching does happen.  But the alternative, not encouraging botanical (and other natural history) tourism, leads in our opinion to a more serious problem.  Suppose no farms were to make money from botanical explorers or those seeking a natural experience?  What are the alternatives open to these farmers?  Raise more sheep?  Sell off land for vineyards?  Expand agricultural production?   Poachers may make the news occasionally, and extreme commercial poaching may nearly eliminate some plant populations, but the loss of habitat for agriculture and ranching does far more damage to the natural environment and is on a vastly larger scale – and it is legal.

We don’t provide specific GPS locations for any of the plants we show on our webpages.  We do show the farms and their environments, and we do show photos of plants that are found on the farms.   But these farms range from hundreds to thousands of hectares (1 hectare = about 2.5 acres)!  As far as we know, none of the plants we have photographed  have ranges restricted to any particular farm – and most species are common over wide areas.  Many are also grown commercially and are widely available to customers at reasonable prices both in South Africa, Europe and the US.

In summary, our website encourages responsible natural history tourism (“take only photos, leave only footprints”) as a means to encourage greater awareness of the natural environment which should hopefully lead to a greater public interest in nature conservation.