Unusual plants hidden in toys

Officials at Cape Town International Airport in South Africa became suspicious after finding cardboard boxes labeled as toys being sent to China.

China is famous for exporting toys all over the world instead of importing them.

When the box was opened for a spot check, inside was not the promised cooking kit for children or board games, but a bundle of endangered succulents carefully wrapped in toilet paper.

A total of 23,000 plants of a plant called Conophytum were found in the shipment in April 2022, investigators from the South African Police’s Endangered Species Unit told the BBC.

Authorities were on high alert after a few months ago a delivery company was nearly deceived using the same method.

About a year later, authorities at the same airport found cardboard boxes labeled as mushrooms, which had also been shipped to China.

When they opened it, they found the bag, usually used to hold onions, stuffed with about 12,000 succulents.

Bushland in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa

The area known as the Succulent Karoo is renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity [Getty Images]

“They never stop,” one police investigator said. “When we figure out one way they do it, they come up with another smuggling idea.”

According to TRAFFIC, an international organization that investigates wildlife crime, authorities have seized more than one million illegally harvested succulents from 650 species as they passed through South Africa to be transported to overseas markets since 2019.

Around 3,000 smuggled succulents are seized by enforcement agencies in South Africa every week.

According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, new markets are emerging, particularly across East Asia, driven by growing demand for the plant as an ornamental, with many African countries now primarily involved in sourcing from the wild.

This threatens biodiversity in areas such as what the World Wildlife Fund calls the Succulent Karoo, a vast arid region of South Africa and Namibia that is home to more than 6,000 species of succulent plants, 40 percent of which are found nowhere else, according to conservation groups.

One of the most commonly smuggled succulents is Conophytum, several of whose subspecies are subject to trade restrictions.

Succulent found in onion bag at Cape Town airport in South AfricaSucculent found in onion bag at Cape Town airport in South Africa

Cape Town airport staff discovered the succulents in March 2023 inside a bag of onions labelled as mushrooms. [South African Police Service]

This is because these species are listed as threatened or endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Wildlife trade experts say postal and courier services provide an easy way to smuggle small plants like succulents.

According to a recent report by the World Customs Organization (WCO), the most common way to smuggle plants and animals is to pack them in packages and send them by mail, accounting for 43% of all seizures in 2022, up 17% from the previous year.

“There are many different ways criminals hide illegal items in the mail, and a common one is using children’s toys,” said Dawn Wilks, postal security program manager at the Universal Postal Union, the international association of postal services.

She told the BBC that the packages typically came from Africa and Asia.

Tropical succulent, Fritillaria pulchraTropical succulent, Fritillaria pulchra

Here are some examples of South African succulents that are on the IUCN Red List. [Getty Images]

And customs officials are well aware that smugglers are cunning.

Last March, officials in the northeastern Vietnamese city of Haiphong discovered an intriguing shipment from Nigeria.

The container was filled with what appeared to be black horns, which on closer inspection turned out to be ivory tusks painted black.

Experts who investigate the illegal wildlife trade say it is unusual for ivory to be disguised with paint, although Vietnamese authorities have seized ivory hidden among shipments of cow horns in the past.

The Haiphong seizure included about 550 pieces of ivory weighing about 1,600 kg (252 tonnes).

This led to the arrest of two people in Nigeria in connection with the shipment.According to the Wildlife Justice Committee, which worked with the country’s customs authorities on the case.

The illegal ivory trade mainly affects Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe and is one of the main causes of the decline of African elephants, whose populations have fallen by around 90% over the past three decades.

The African forest elephant is listed on the IUCN Red List as a species that is critically endangered.

Endangered sharks that live off the coast of Africa are also proving difficult to protect, not least because their fins are a key ingredient in shark fin soup, a hugely popular delicacy around the world.

More than 500 species of sharks have been recorded, many of which are permitted for trade, but around 60 species are considered endangered and therefore trade in their parts is restricted.

A blacktip reef shark photographed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South AfricaA blacktip reef shark photographed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa

The large number of shark species makes it difficult to monitor the shark trade. [Getty Images]

And wildlife trade investigators say that’s a loophole that traffickers are exploiting.

In recent years, South Africa has detected several cases where customs officials were faced with shipments containing a mixture of legal and illegal shark fins.

“Criminals will claim that endangered species are in fact being traded legally,” TRAFFIC expert Sarah Vincent told the BBC.

“So it’s really important for law enforcement to know how to tell which is which.”

This is being done in South Africa with the help of TRAFFIC’s 3D digital technology, she said.

Wildlife smuggling cases are becoming increasingly sophisticated with various methods of concealment, so it is important for enforcement agencies to share information with regional and international partners.

For Elizabeth John, TRAFFIC’s Senior Wildlife Researcher for Southeast Asia, a united front against traffickers is the only way to defeat them.

Increased information sharing over the years has led to an increase in seizures.

The WCO report noted that seizure volumes in 2022 increased by 10% compared to 2020 and a staggering 56% increase compared to 2021.

However, the increase in seizures represents a worrying trend.

“These statistics suggest that illegal wildlife and timber trade remains widespread and that traffickers are using a variety of evolving methods to circumvent applicable laws prohibiting this illegal crime,” the WCO said.

Wildlife trade experts say the challenge is keeping customs and border control officials adequately resourced, equipped and trained to stay ahead of smugglers’ ever-evolving tactics.

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