The rich and unique diversity of succulent plants found in South Africa is currently under threat from a rising international demand for ornamental plants. This demand has resulted in a significant increase in incidences of illegal harvesting of South African plants, most notably across the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot, to supply a global and largely online horticultural trade.
The impacts of this trade have been severe for several endemic species with many restricted range plants in the Northern and Western Cape provinces having been pushed closer to extinction due to contributing pressures from ongoing illegal (and unsustainable) harvesting. Recent assessments conducted for one of the most in-demand plant groups, the genus Conophytum (common names: button plants (Eng.); knopies (Afr.), has resulted in 97% of the 210 species being listed to one of the three International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) threatened categories. Collectors are interested in a variety of other such species and many other in-demand groups are faced with a similar deteriorating conservation trend.
Additionally, conservation authorities and botanical gardens are struggling to adequately manage the volumes of confiscated plant material arising due to a growing number of ongoing criminal investigations. The limited resources and capacity to deal with the material, and lack of space to house confiscated specimens are leading to further losses of plants. The trade has also fostered some negative socio-economic consequences in the region with many local communities being impacted.
In July of 2021, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Worldwide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) brought together a diverse network of key stakeholders including government departments, conservation authorities, NGO’s, and local communities to discuss ideas to address the multitude of complexities contributing to this challenge. These engagements have led to the development of a nationally approved Strategy and Action Plan aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of the country’s rich succulent flora whilst promoting sustainable socio-economic development within the country.
The strategy sets out several high-level objectives focused on tackling the challenges and developing the opportunities surrounding the illegal collection and trade of plants within the Succulent Karoo region, including the establishment of well-managed ex situ collections; capacitating the compliance and enforcement sector to enable more effective action against illegal collection and trade; as well as, exploring options for the development of a formal economy that benefits the country and contributes to socio-economic development and conservation.
SANBI is working closely with the department and other key role-players to advance the implementation of the strategy along with other essential tasks to help combat the illegal trade in South African flora.
SANBI’s role in addressing the illegal trade in succulent plants
- SANBI network of national botanical gardens are showcasing the country’s rich and unique diversity of plants and the importance of their conservation.
- SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme monitors the status of in situ (on-site) populations of succulent plant species, and undertakes national conservation assessments of all South Africa’s plant species.
- The Institute provides technical support to the Scientific Authority of South Africa, which advises government on sustainable use and trade in South Africa’s wildlife.
- SANBI plays a key role in collating and sharing biodiversity information and / or knowledge to foster positive biodiversity outcomes.
- In addition, SANBI has established an internal Succulent Poaching Working Group (SPWG), which is an inter-divisional group aiming to coordinate efforts across SANBI that will identify and undertake key activities and contribute towards alleviating the impacts of this trade.
The Succulent Poaching Working Group will:
- Support the implementation of the national response strategy.
- Establish ex situ (off-site) conservation collections that ensure genetically diverse repositories..
- Optimise the use of confiscated plant material for conservation benefit which may include using this material as mother stock to produce seed and seedlings.
- Explore options for reintroduction and restoration, if reintroduction sites can be secured from further poaching.