STEINKOPF, South Africa – On a moonless night in the desert in far west South Africa, Avrill Kaffer had just closed a sale when vehicles with flashing lights emerged from the darkness and an officer from the Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit jumped out from behind a nearby bush and gave orders him to the ground.

When Mr. Kaffer realized it was set up, he was already handcuffed. As he watched, the police opened the eight large boxes he had brought with him.

Inside, they found thousands of small, brown, dumpling-like plants – conophytums, which are native to this part of Africa – apparently only recently excavated.

Conophytum, a genus of flowering plants that consists of over 100 species – including several classified as endangered – are the latest victims of a global wave of poaching of succulents caused by increasing demand from collectors and aficionados around the world, particularly in China and Korea, is raised. Experts said.

South Africa is home to around a third of all succulents, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and experts say this poaching poses a serious threat to biodiversity.

“Conophytes are the big thing now,” said Captain Karel Du Toit, the officer behind the stab operation that led to the arrest of Mr. Kaffer. Capt. Du Toit, himself an avid Conophytum admirer, said he spent most of his time investigating cases of stolen cattle, but since 2018 fighting succulents has become a full-time job.

“Eighty percent of it is plant boxes,” he said in his office, pointing to a pile of files on the floor next to his desk. “The problem is getting huge.”

Succulents, which were once considered plants for the poor in South Africa, have become internationally fashionable in recent years and are valued for their bizarre, sculptural shapes and the relatively low maintenance requirements. A search for #succulents now brings over 12 million hits on Instagram.

The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted an already buoyant houseplant industry, with garden centers reporting a sharp surge in houseplant sales, first bans being imposed in many countries since 2020.

The pandemic has also changed the way juicy poachers work, law enforcement officials said. A couple of years ago, the people who drove Capt. Du Toit and his colleagues arrested almost all foreign nationals – mostly Chinese and Korean passport holders. But since the pandemic resulted in travel restrictions, foreign buyers have been hiring locals to carry out the poaching.

“They provide the locals with GPS readings for the places where the plants grow,” said Captain Du Toit.

This shift has brought the country’s conservation authorities into conflict with a growing number of young, unemployed people who see these plants as an opportunity to escape abject poverty.

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” said Kaffer after his arrest, while two officers counted the conophytums he was trying to sell and shoveled them into evidence bags. The first box alone contained around 1,424 plants.

Mr. Kaffer expected to get 160,000 rand, about $ 11,000, for his plants, but Capt. Du Toit said their market value abroad would be much higher.

A former diamond miner, Mr Kaffer, who is 40, said he had been unemployed for more than a year and was struggling to support his family. The unemployment rate in South Africa rose to almost 33 percent during the pandemic.

As a rule, convicts are offered the choice between paying a fine and a suspended sentence, or alternatively a short prison sentence.

In botanical gardens and greenhouses in the Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces, where the poaching epidemic is worst, botanists grapple with a massive influx of succulents that are being confiscated by poachers. Given that there are too many to transplant in the wild, and given the risk that doing so could contaminate the remaining wild populations, authorities are now hoping to keep as many alive as possible until a long-term decision is made about what to do with them to do.

“I literally have case by case,” said a Cape Town botanist who handles confiscated succulents and acts as an expert witness to prosecutors. The man asked to remain anonymous and referred to recent threats from a colleague.

In his camp, where he has been receiving around 2,500 poached Conophytum per week since the beginning of the year, trays full of succulents lay along a row of metal tables, each section corresponding to a different police bust.

One table contained a mix of Haworthias, Adromischus and Gasterias, other types of succulents that were confiscated by two Czech poachers in 2019. Next to it were trays of conophytums that had been confiscated from a Korean poacher who was found on the run from authorities in California, where he was charged with stealing more than half a million dollars of Dudleya farinosa plants.

“These were caught in the mail,” said the botanist, pointing to several boxes of miniature Conophytum comptonii plants. “It’s just amazing, people can’t get the plants fast enough.”

Containing the flood of poaching is a major challenge. The South African government lacks the personnel to monitor the vast open spaces where the conophytums grow. In addition, plant crime specialists admit that only a few police officers or customs officers can even identify a conophytum, let alone distinguish one grown in tree nurseries from one harvested in the wild.

In the event that wild populations are wiped out, the South African National Biodiversity Institute has set itself the goal of collecting specimens of rare species in order to keep them in the culture.

“The demand for rare, wild-harvested plants is skyrocketing, and many of these species, especially conophytums, are only found in very small localized populations that could be collected to extinction with a few visits by poachers,” said Ismail Ebrahim. a project head of the institute.

Plant poaching is not a new phenomenon. But the internet has opened the market wide, said Carly Cowell, a South African scientist based at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, who recently got involved in a project that used artificial intelligence to track the illegal online plant trade.

“The internet is a big, important game changer,” she said. “We found that there was a huge online trade in plants.” Many buyers of illegally harvested plants didn’t seem to know they were breaking the law, she said, adding that “people are pretty ignorant or naive, what constitutes the illegal plant trade ”.

A recent study by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty organization that combats the illegal trade in wildlife, found that around 365 endangered medicinal plants are openly sold on Amazon and eBay.

Dr. Cowell said that solving the problem is made difficult by a phenomenon known as “plant blindness” – the human tendency to view plants as inherently less important than animals.

Michelle Pfab, an official with the South African Institute of Biodiversity, said many nonprofit groups are focusing on endangered animals because it is easier to raise funds for “charismatic” species.

“They use pictures of orphans and cute babies and it’s so easy to get donations,” she said. “It’s just so difficult with plants.”

Ms. Pfab said she was frustrated that while poaching arrests increased, few of the main actors were being arrested.

“Most of the time, it’s the foot soldiers who get caught, the poor people who try to put food on the table,” she said.

She argues that South Africa will struggle to contain the wave of poaching until the sought-after species are more readily available from legal sources such as tree nurseries. This can take time.

“If you start from scratch with a package of seeds, you won’t make a penny for four or five years,” says Minette Schwegmann, the owner of a large succulent plant nursery in Robertson, east of Cape Town.

Ms. Schwegmann said she regularly received orders for tens of thousands of mature conophytums. When she replies that she can’t supply these quantities from her nursery, some prospects wonder why she can’t just dig them up in the wild.