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International Succulent Smuggling Still a Major Problem on Northern California Coast

Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is stepping up their game to make sure the foreign nationals responsible for gutting the lush Northern California coast of its Dudleya farinosa succulents are brought to justice.

Using tactics like hiding in camouflaged suits, monitoring suspicious post office activity and training dogs to sniff out the plant has nabbed a couple convictions of foreign nationals. But to this day, there is no evidence that the international succulent poaching scheme that is plaguing the NorCal coast is slowing down.

The scheme was brought to the attention of CDFW game wardens in 2017, when three foreign nationals were found poaching the succulents off the shore of Humboldt County. Felony convictions were handed to Taehun Kim, 52, and Taeyun Kim, 46, both of Korea, and Liu Fengxia, 37, of China for conspiracy and false filings with the government, and misdemeanor convictions included removal of plant material from public lands and commercial sales of plants removed from public lands. The men were handed sentences of three years and eight months in state prison and a $10,000 fine each.

The Dudleya farinosa succulents are well known to grow on the Northern California coastline, with many in the Mendocino and Humboldt regions, with an endangered species living in Santa Clara County. These plants that are being illegally uprooted and sent to Asian countries typically sell on the black market for $40 to $80 a piece, with the big, mature plants going for up to $1,000.

Now, officials see no slowdown to the Asian global black market heist and believe several hundred thousand succulents worth millions of dollars have been illegally uprooted along the NorCal coast.

In January 2019, a woman noticed a brazen group of Asian men uprooting succulents in the Salt Point State Park. Another woman claimed that she saw a table of succulents being packaged along a trail in Sea Ranch by three men, according to CDFW game wardens.

It’s simple – steal plants along the coast and send them home to make a handsome profit. But if the heists continue, there won’t be much left of the Dudleya farinosa in Northern California. Removal of Dudleya, or any vegetation in sensitive habitat, can result in environmental degradation of habitat and a destabilization of bluffs and cliffs on the coastline. Some Dudleya species are rare or at risk of extinction.

The poaching was publicized in 2017 when game warden Patrick Freeling followed multiple tips to nab the convicted Korean and Chinese nationals who were traveling to Northern California to steal the succulent and send them back to black market sellers in China and Korea.

The first tip came from an anonymous caller who noticed suspicious activity in a small Mendocino post office. The caller claimed that a man held up the line at the post office while shipping 60 packages to China. When the caller asked what the man was shipping, he pointed to the ocean and said “something very valuable.” Following the tip, Freeling notified U.S. Customs who discovered the boxes full of the Dudleya plant.

When Freeling received another phone tip, he rushed to the cliffs near Point Arena to find the same man found in the post office security footage. He was caught with 50 Dudleyas in his backpack.

The final blow was when Freeling found a van parked along Highway 1 loaded with boxes. He first suspected abalone poachers, but when they searched the van they found hundreds of Dudleya. The phone tips had suddenly paid off in spades.

Following the arrest of the foreign nationals, officials raided the suspects cabin in Trinidad, uncovering thousands more succulents. That was when they realized this operation had global implications.

Authorities had found out the suspects flew into San Francisco International Airport, rented a van and cruised the Northern California coastline looking for the plant, shipping them to Asia along the way.

There are many implications with the destruction of this coastal land, including a massive hit to the coastline’s ecosystem. Officials were able to replant some of the recovered plants but it’s still unknown how many total plants have been shipped to Asia.

If you notice any suspicious poaching activity, please call CalTIP, CDFW’s confidential secret witness program, at (888) 334-2258 or send a text to tip411.

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