INTERNACIONAL.- State wildlife officials say they have uncovered an international scheme in which thieves from Korea and China slip into wild landscapes in Northern California to pluck succulents to sell on the thriving black market in Asia.
The succulents, called Dudleya farinosa, fetch up to $50 each in Asia, where a growing middle class is fueling demand, reported the Mercury News in San Jose, California.
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Since an investigation started in December, state officials have nabbed suspects from China and Korea in three separate thefts along the Humboldt and Mendocino coast and recovered thousands of plants about to be shipped.
They say organized smuggling rings based in Asia are behind the thefts. The investigation started after an anonymous woman called Patrick Freeling, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden known for his diligence, to report she saw a man at Mendocino’s tiny post office shipping 60 packages to China.
“What are you shipping?” she asked, as the line grew, snaking out the door. “The man put his finger up to his lip and said, ‘Shhhh, something very valuable,’” said Freeling. “Where did you get them?” she asked.
The man pointed toward the ocean. Alerted by Freeling, U.S. Customs and Border Protection X-rayed the packages — and discovered Dudleya farinosa.
After another tip about a suspicious minivan parked on Highway 1 along the Mendocino coast, Freeling found 850 plants and 1,450 smaller “rosettes.”
The suspects, who rented the van at San Francisco International Airport and were headed to Los Angeles, spoke no English and carried Korean passports.