Rooting out ginseng poachers in US national parks
Despite tighter security and replanting programmes, park rangers admit they're losing fight to protect valuable crop in face of demand from Asia
The first thing US National Park Service Ranger Lamon Brown noticed was an illegal campsite, littered with food wrappers and marked by a smouldering fire.
Then the ranger spotted two figures skulking out of the dense forest near Andrews Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina.
Their hands were filthy. Their clothes were muddy. One was carrying a bulging backpack.
These were the Hurley boys, notorious for rustling wild ginseng roots, a federal crime in the park. Inside the backpack were 805 wild ginseng roots, resembling dirty wrinkled fingers and weighing in at a hefty 5kg - worth US$1,300 a kilo in local markets at the time.
Billy Joe and Jeffrey Hurley were later convicted, and more than 650 of the roots they had illegally harvested were replanted by park botanists.
But even with the replanting programme and vigilant rangers, the park is losing its battle against poachers.
High ginseng demand and soaring prices have sent thieves tramping through the vast park to strip the landscape.
"We're barely putting a dent in it," said District Ranger Joe Pond, an enforcement officer. "For every thief we catch, at least 10 more get away."
Demand is nearly insatiable in Asia, especially China, where wild ginseng is prized as a folk medicine, aphrodisiac, health tonic and energy booster. The root is sold to China by licensed US dealers, who also supply Chinatowns in cities such as New York and San Francisco with legal ginseng harvested by written permission on private land.
Asian users consider American wild ginseng ( Panax quinquefolius) far more potent than its cultivated alternative.
Wild ginseng roots sell for US$660 or US$880 a dry kilo in summer, rising to US$2,000 by autumn. The price hit US$2,650 in 1998, triggering a poaching surge that continues today.
The park service prohibits taking ginseng from Smoky Mountains park, but allows limited harvesting, with a permit, in the Nantahala and Pisgah forests of North Carolina.
To enforce the ban, rangers use infrared and motion surveillance cameras. They often go undercover to cosy up to rustlers foraging for ginseng's distinctive flat, multi-leafed prongs.
Since 1992, the rangers in Smoky Mountains park have seized more than 13,000 stolen ginseng roots.
Jim Corbin, the park's plant protection specialist, devised a combination of dye and silicon-coded chips to mark 40,000 wild ginseng plants in the park. The telltale markers, much like DNA in a murder case, have helped convict several rustlers and licensed dealers who sell poached ginseng.
But even with these measures, poachers in the 2,110 square kilometre park have destroyed once bountiful stocks of the valuable plant.
"There's just a void in the landscape now," said Janet Rock, a botanist at the park since 1989. "You used to see plenty of mature plants, but now they're disappearing because of poachers." Thieves are left with smaller, younger plants. Two decades ago, about 55 roots weighed 1kg. Today, it takes more than 200.
The park has replanted about three-quarters of its confiscated ginseng roots in recent years. About half regenerate new plants, Rock said. A few have been poached all over again.
Poachers also illegally dig up galax (for floral wreaths), black cohosh and bloodroot (for herbal medicines). But nothing gets poached like ginseng.
"Ginseng is the money plant - there's just no comparison with other plants," Rock said.
Five people were charged in federal court with illegal ginseng possession in the park in 2010, 11 in 2011 and five last year.
Pond, the district ranger, said more arrests were likely by September, when poachers are attracted by higher prices as the growing season ends.