Sniffing out succulents

Over the past few years there has been a rise in the global demand for collectable ‘ornamental’ plants. South Africa’s Succulent Karoo Biome, which stretches from Southern Namibia into South Africa’s Northern Cape and Western Cape, is home to many of these desirable plant species and this region has recently become heavily targeted by plant poachers to supply the insatiable demand of overseas markets.

As at the end of June 2023, more than 1 million illegally harvested plants had been confiscated in South Africa, this equates to roughly 3000 – 6000 plants per week, with most originating from the Northern Cape’s Namaqualand region. While law enforcement operations and reporting of the illegal harvesting is proving valuable in the fight against succulent poaching, it is suspected that less than 25% of the trade is intercepted by enforcement officials, and as such it is very likely that >1.5 million plants have been removed from the wild in the past three years.

Close to 650 indigenous and endemic plant taxanomic groups have been impacted, many of which are rare or endangered. Different types of succulent plants (incl. mesembryanthemums and caudiciforms) as well as geophytes (bulb species) within South Africa are prized for their alluring characteristics and rarity. The Conophytum genus in particular, has been hard hit, pushing most of the species in this genus to critically endangered levels. The challenge of the illegal harvesting and trade in plants is one of the biggest biodiversity challenges facing the country. The Succulent Karoo is a global biodiversity hotspot, and South Africa has a key responsibility to protect this spectacular biodiversity that is found nowhere else in the world.

In July 2021, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the WWF South Africa, together with a diverse network of government departments, conservation authorities, NGO’s, and local communities to address this issue. By February 2022, the National Response Strategy and Action Plan was developed approved by the Ministers and Members of Executive Councils meeting (MINMEC) for implementation. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is one of the lead agents in implementing the response plan and works closely with law enforcement, assisting them with the identification of confiscated plants and other critical information required for criminal investigations.

During the same period the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) had embarked on a project to train three Conservation Canine Unit dogs to detect succulent plants as part of a feasibility study to use scent detection dogs to help combat the growing plant poaching problem. This project dove-tailed perfectly with the aims of the National Strategy and provides one of the potential tools in the toolkit to help combat the poaching problem.

Dr Carina Becker – du Toit, the Scientific coordinator for plant poaching response, facilitates the collaboration of the working group consisting of the EWT, SAPS, CapeNature and SANBI. The collaboration of these four organizations has enabled the deployment of the EWT dog teams to detect succulent plants at key locations. This is a first for South Africa, and as far as we know, these dogs are the only detection dogs worldwide that are specifically being used to help combat plant poaching.

EWT dog handlers, Shadi Henrico and Esther Matthew are very pleased with how well all the dogs are performing. The use of scent detection dogs has great potential for aiding in the protection of our country’s rare biodiversity. The dogs are currently being deployed across the Western – and Northern Cape provinces at strategic locations as part of a pilot study to assess their effectiveness.

“This is an exciting project and all the partners have supported this initiative which is showing very promising results. This is a first for South Africa and it has been a great learning opportunity for all involved” said Becker-du Toit.

The EWT’s succulent detection dog project is funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, with operational support provided by CapeNature, SANBI and SAPS.