Two Chinese arrested for stealing precious Haworthia plants, as thefts of cactus-like collectibles spike in Japan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 8:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 10:38pm

Japanese growers of sought-after Haworthia plants have been warned to take measures to protect their prized specimens after the arrest of two Chinese nationals over the theft of hundreds of the collectible succulent plants.

The two men, who have not been identified, were arrested in separate incidents in April and July of this year, but Dr Masahiko Hayashi, president of the Haworthia Society of Japan, said thefts have been going on for a year.

“There have been 18 cases of plants being stolen that we are aware of, going back to August of last year,” he said.

“The arrests make it obvious that Chinese organised crime groups based here in Japan are behind these thefts, largely because the very best specimens are worth around Y1 million (HK$76,925) here, but maybe two or three times that amount in China,” he said.

Native to South Africa, the cactus-like plants are popular for their unique shapes, with the most valuable the result of generations of breeding to create the perfect plant.

The 150-strong society estimates that plants worth more than HK$100 million have been stolen from growers across the country, said Dr Hayashi, who has around 20,000 plants of his own and has been growing Haworthia since 1945.

In one case at a property close to Tokyo, 1,600 plants were taken in one night. In another incident, security cameras caught a man uprooting Haworthia plants by the dozen and taking them away.

National broadcaster NHK interviewed a horticulturalist whose collection was decimated in January and who claimed that he was visited by a Chinese woman shortly before the theft.

The man, who was not named, told NHK that the woman took photos of individual plants and that the images appeared on an information sharing app a short time afterwards with descriptions such as “Inventory confirmed” or “Ready to be shipped on Monday.”

Police have declined to comment on the two arrests to date, although one of the suspects is a permanent resident of Japan and lives here with his wife and children.

But Dr Hayashi has no doubts about what is happening to the stolen plants.

“It’s obvious that they’re being sent to China, where they’re even more popular than here,” he said. “We are telling our members to be very careful with their collections and to take more precautions, such as installing cameras in their greenhouses.”