A rare Wollemi Pine tree in a cage at Kew Gardens.
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Law enforcement and ecologists will need to trade information to combat trading in endangered plants say crime researchers

Online trading is increasing the damage done by illegal trading in plant material, but researchers have suggestions to reduce this.

Illegal commerce in plants and their derivative products is threatening the survival of many species. In addition, plant smuggling presents a terrific opportunity for pathogens to enter new territories. The ESRC-funded project “FloraGuard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants” has been analysing the plant trade. A new paper by Anita Lavorgna & Maurizio Sajeva in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research reports on how illegal plant markets operate and makes some recommendations on how to improve protection.

Wollemi pine in a cage
Protecting plants isn’t always simple.

While you may think of wildlife trade as something involving elephant tusks or tiger pelts, plants are a major source of income for smugglers. The dangers for the plants are real with many species under threat of extinction from traders selling wild plants.

Lavorgna & Sajeva identify two motivations in the illicit trading of plants. For the suppliers the trade is seen as a low risk, but high profit, market. One interviewee said that the sentences for illegal trafficking were low enough that the fines were affordable. The motivation for the buyer is social status, one source saying, “they will be looking for specific things, you know, the rarer specimens, the more valuable, the ones that they can show off to their friends with.”

The lack of policing in the plant trade means that the illicit trade is surprisingly open. “As enforcement in even the clear web remains sparse, there is very little incentive for traders to move onto the dark web, where their pool of potential customers might be more limited,” write Lavorgna & Sajeva. The result is trade in material happening on Amazon, eBay and Alibaba as well as nursery sites and social media platforms.

They also note that the social element comes out in how the plants are traded. “For example, to borrow the words of one respondent, in the case of collectors, it is often about ‘befriending your customers before making them your customer’,” the authors write. They also note the personal element also adds a limited element of danger reporting on an interviewee who said that, “certain traders are not afraid of ‘stabbing others in the back because that increases their commercial footprint then and the rivals [are taken] out of the market for a while’, for instance by reporting them to Crimestoppers (a community programme, active in certain countries, which allows people to provide anonymous information about illegal activity).”

The social element also changes what gets collected say Lavorgna & Sajeva. “A couple of respondents reported how they had observed, over the last few years, some long-term changes to the market due to the ageing of certain major collectors. For instance, according to one interviewee, the (offline) illegal market in cacti, which was once prominent in the UK, has become less important as many large collectors have died or given their collections away (with many species being difficult to trade, as collections might be pre-CITES, which is not always easy to prove), while new generations are likely to be more active online.”

Given the open nature of the illegal trade, how does it continue? The answer for Lavorgna & Sajeva has a big connection with plant blindness. “In line with the literature denouncing “plant blindness”, plant crimes are indeed considered as victimless crimes, which receive attention only when there is sufficiently direct impact “on human beings and their lives as well” (INT 13). This lack of care is closely linked to the lack of political will to address plant crime, which is perceived as not worthy of much attention and resources (“it depends on what ministers want. I mean obviously, this is a political issue, you know. If they say they want to focus on ivory, they want to focus on ivory […] I mean, they are told by their bosses, […] they have targets they have to hit”, INT 15).”

Along with the lack of interest is a lack of expertise. “Out of the 149 sea and airports of entry across the UK and overseas, Border Force only has two ports with dedicated units and in-house experts (in Heathrow and Felixstowe, respectively, the UK’s busiest airport and container ports). Experts, for instance, from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, can be consulted when needed, but this does not solve the problem of having only a few people in the country with the ability to identify illegal LS and DP, and who are mostly concentrated in the East of England. These experts, moreover, are often subject to a quick turnaround, despite working in a field where in-depth expertise is developed over many years, with a lot of on-the-job experience.”

The authors note that, for the UK market, the paperwork in importing plant material will increase in the event of a crash-out Brexit. No deal means no common paperwork on phytosanitary standards for imports.

While the current situation looks grim, Lavorgna & Sajeva make some recommendations. “First of all, we should recognise that there are different levels of illegality/seriousness in the illegal plant trade; in the legal framework, we should hence distinguish in a clearer way between those acts of illegality that are nothing more than “administrative offences” (where a permit is accidentally missing), and those acts resulting in potentially serious environmental harm.”

Next, they argue for ports having access to part-time experts. “Each port of entry should have constant access to a small team of professional experts (e.g. naturalists and biologists) within geographical reach, who can side with custom officers when needed. The existing training models should be backed up by a mentoring model, allowing the few officers with expertise built up over the years to pass it on, little by little, to the next generation.”

Finally, they also argue the online element of the trade could be spiked if the market were “lemonised”. This is increasing the uncertainty about what you’re buying over the internet. Happily, this in an area where many criminals are already eager to cooperate.“sometimes they say, ‘I have a very, very rare orchid coming from Thailand,’ but, basically, those are the orchids that you can be in the flower shop on every corner, you know”, INT 13.

However, these changes will require interest from politicians to prevent environmental damage either overseas or in the receiving nation. Until that happens Lavorgna & Sajeva say wildlife crime will remain a high-profit, low-risk criminal business.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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