North Carolina has a long and colorful bond with Venus flytraps, the carnivorous plants that grow in the wild only in a 75-mile radius around Wilmington.
In 1760, the North Carolina colonial governor, Arthur Dobbs, described the discovery of the plant in his diary: “The greatest wonder of the vegetable kingdom is a very curious unknown species. Upon touching the leaves, they instantly close like a spring trap.”
More than 200 years later, a rugby field and a 5-kilometer run bear the name of the flytrap, and in 2005, the state declared it the official state carnivorous plant. The North Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy described the flytrap as the state’s “most famous natural legacy.”
But some people have taken that fondness for the flytrap too far, officials said, with poachers trafficking in thousands of plants plucked illegally from the wild, as well as from gardens and nurseries.
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As the podcast “Criminal” described it, the demand for the plants has led to “a Venus flytrap crime ring.”
Conservationists worry that the poaching, if left unchecked, could endanger the plant’s existence.
“We’ve got something very precious in the nation here,” Sgt. Brandon W. Dean, of the law enforcement division of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said in an interview. “If we don’t do something now, it’s going to be extinct.”
The Venus flytrap became protected by state legislation in 1956, and the state sells permits to those who want to collect flytraps from private land with the owner’s permission. But poachers have scrounged forest floors for decades, seeking to sell the plants on the black market for up to 25 cents each, Dean said. It is easy, he added, to collect 1,000 to 2,000 of the dime-size plants in a single sweep.
“A lot of the guys we catch – it’s sad to say – it’s a family tradition,” he said. “We caught their dad and their dad’s dad.”
An area of southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina is the only place in the world where the plants grow in the wild. The conservancy estimates that 35,000 of them remain.
With its bright red center and spiky edges, the plant has long captured the imagination. Charles Darwin described the flytrap as “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” Even its Latin name has a certain appeal. The name, Dionaea muscipula, is derived from words meaning “the goddess of love” and “mousetrap,” according to the conservancy.
Venus flytraps get their nutrients from the insects they lure with nectar and trap with a pair of jawlike leaves. When an insect lands and bumps into trigger hairs on the leaves, the trap closes and digestive enzymes dissolve its prey.
Poaching peaks when the plant is in bloom and most visible, from late May to mid-June, said Debbie Crane, communications director for the Nature Conservancy’s state chapter, which owns 25,000 acres that are home to the plants. But the thefts are not limited to state and private preserves.
A plant nursery, Fly-Trap Farm, near Supply, North Carolina, about 25 miles southwest of Wilmington, was burglarized in September 2013. The thieves took more than 18,000 flytraps estimated to be worth $65,000, “Criminal” reported. The nursery owners did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment.
What drives the demand for these carnivorous plants? No one can say with certainty, but experts point to a few possibilities.
Part of the allure is psychological, Karl J. Niklas, a professor of plant biology at Cornell University, said in an interview. Ingesting the plant’s juices has been marketed as a way to increase libido or help the body heal, he said.
Crane noted the online advertising by Carnivora, a company that sells liquid drops and capsules of the plant extract. Carnivora’s website says its products promote antioxidants and support “resistance to harmful invaders.”
In an effort to crack down on poachers, the state upgraded the theft of flytraps growing in the wild to a felony, from a misdemeanor, effective Dec. 1, 2014.
Previously, the maximum fine was $50. Offenders can now face up to 29 months in prison. The taking of each plant is considered an individual offense.
Four men made headlines in January 2015 when they were caught with 970 Venus flytraps and became the first people in the state to be charged with felony poaching.
Three of the men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to supervised probation, two for 24 months and one for 12 months. The other man was convicted and sentenced to six to 17 months in prison, the local district attorney’s office said.
As for whether the stiffer penalties have curbed thefts, officials said it was too soon to tell. When poachers are caught, it is often because officers have been tipped off by other poachers concerned about their turf or by recreational users, such as bird watchers or hikers, Dean said.
The dense woods and bogs where the plants naturally grow are difficult to patrol. Dean estimated that one person might be caught for every 200 episodes of poaching.
“I would like to think with it being a felony, it put a damper on it,” he said. “The teeth have definitely been sharpened.”
Still, he was not optimistic that the practice would die out. The burden is on enforcers to prove that plants were illegally harvested, and that is not easy because there is no way to distinguish a plant pilfered from the wild from one legally raised in a greenhouse, he said.
One of the men who pleaded guilty to felony poaching, Malcolm Massey, said in an interview last week that he was an outdoorsman who was fascinated by the plant.
“They’re a nice, beautiful plant,” he said.
Massey said he had given them to relatives and friends. Pressed about whether he had ever sold them, he said he had been approached by potential buyers but would not be more specific.
He was out of work and looking to “make a little bit of money” when he was charged, he said, adding that he could collect “a couple of hundred” of the plants in three or four hours crawling on the forest floor.
As for those now considering poaching, Massey, who was sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation, had this advice: “All I would tell them is good luck. It’s going to be really hard. It’s a felony now, and you’re going to jail.”