A photo of a rare, unusual-looking plant is shared more than 10,000 times on social media. Under the entry, the comments rapidly pile up. "I'd love to have one of those!" and "Where can I get one?" A few weeks later, smugglers in South Africa are caught with the endangered plant species, whose trade is illegal.
"We receive a new report of plant poaching almost every day," complains Pieter van Wyk, a botanist who works closely with the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
South Africa is home to almost a third of the world's succulents, many of which are protected by law.
Boosted by social media, the illegal plant trade has taken on proportions comparable to rhino poaching, with international criminal networks now getting involved, van Wyk explains.
It's easy to see what potential for profit there is too; the hashtag #PlantTikTok has 3.5 billion views, while on Instagram there are 12.3 million posts with the hashtag #succulents.
It may all appear to be about plant love, plant care and pretty pictures, but lurking underneath is always the black market trade of some of the world's rarest plants.
The more endangered a plant, the higher its demand and thus its price. A plant that cost the equivalent of €1 (RM4.90) two years ago now trades for €1,700 (RM8,337), says van Wyck. "It's almost like bitcoin, an artificially created market that has taken on a disproportionate size."
The succulents, which often grow in pretty geometric patterns or unusual shapes, are particularly sought after in Asia, Europe and North America, he says.
Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, are now developing AI algorithms to help scour the Internet for information about the illegal trade in endangered plants.
The idea is to use a combination of botanical expertise, criminology and communications technology to analyse online behaviour and uncover the locations of poachers and traders.
It's a global race against time. In Chile, the illegal trade in particularly rare cacti has become one of the most lucrative criminal activities in the country. "Between five billion and 23 billion dollars are realised every year," explains botanist Pablo Guerrero from Chile's University of Concepcion.
For collectors, it is particularly attractive to own cacti that only exist in a certain region, says the director of the Antofagasta forestry department, Cristian Salas.
A year ago, police officers discovered cacti from Chile's Atacama Desert during a raid in the Italian province of Ancona. "About 1,000 plants were confiscated, some of which were sold for US$2,000 (RM8,343) to US$5,000 (RM20,857) each," said Simone Checchini of Italy's Carabinieri.
Most of the confiscated plants were cacti of the genus Copiapoa, which are only found in the extremely dry Atacama.
"This region has been heavily plundered by illegal collectors in recent years, which has contributed to the rapid decline in the populations of these species," said a statement from the World Conservation Union.
Mexico has also been severely affected by cactus smuggling.
According to local environmental authorities, a total of 518 of the 1,400 or so species that exist worldwide are endemic there.
The giant cacti of the Sonora Desert and the nopal (prickly pear) with its red fruit – which can also be found on the country's flag – are probably the best-known species from Mexico. But a variety of other cacti are in demand among collectors. However, the illegal plant trade is a "silent problem" whose importance is often overlooked, the organisation InSight Crime wrote in a report.
In South Africa's south-western Cape Floral Region, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as in the Namaqualand district further north, which is famous for its biodiversity, dozens of plant species grow that cannot be found in the wild anywhere else in the world.
Smugglers remain indifferent to the damage they are doing to the region's natural wealth, however, and last year, the authorities confiscated nearly 150 kilos of protected plans, according to Cape Nature. "What we are seeing at the moment is the rapid and complete loss of entire species," van Wyk warns.
In Namaqualand, a police sting operation in mid-2020 caught four poachers red-handed as they attempted to sell protected plants worth the equivalent of US$134,000 (RM558,981) on the side of a country road.
While the plants were confiscated, once removed from the ground, they can only survive in botanical nurseries, tended by trained staff.
"This is the great tragedy," police captain Karel du Toit, who heads a special unit to combat plant smuggling, told radio station Cape Talk. "For the wild, they are lost forever." – dpa