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‘Crime against nature’: the rise and fall of the world’s most notorious succulent thief | California


When Byungsu Kim appeared for his sentencing listening to on Zoom from the Santa Ana jail in California, his jaw was wired shut.

The 46-year-old South Korean nationwide had been in jail for greater than two years on two totally different continents. According to the US authorities, he was an “international succulent trafficker”, maybe the most notorious houseplant poacher in the world.

Kim had already pleaded responsible to taking greater than 3,700 wild dudleya vegetation from California state parks and making an attempt to export them to South Korea.

“All these things happened because of my lack of knowledge,” Kim now informed the choose by means of a translator, in response to Courthouse News, talking with problem by means of his injured jaw, the end result of an assault by one other inmate. “If I had known a little bit more about America, if I had known a little bit more about the laws in America, I would not have done this stupid wrongdoing.”

The American prosecutors argued that Kim’s claims of ignorance had been ludicrous. He had already fled prosecution as soon as, escaping on foot from the US into Mexico in 2019. He had later been arrested in South Africa for illegally harvesting greater than 2,000 uncommon succulents, together with some greater than 100 years previous. And whereas prosecutors couldn’t show that Kim had stolen succulents on his greater than 50 earlier journeys to the US, they suspected, primarily based on export data, that he might need taken upwards of 120,000 wild vegetation since 2013.

Kim’s crimes, the prosecutors argued, had been motivated not by ignorance, however by “insatiable greed”.

Farmer to fugitive

Law enforcement officers have little details about how Kim, a South Korean farmer who studied agriculture in school, ended up on the run from US brokers. The particulars in courtroom paperwork are sparse: he’s separated from his spouse and has two daughters, ages six and 16.

Dudleya succulent plants
Dudleya succulent vegetation, allegedly stolen by worldwide poachers from distant cliffside areas alongside the northern California coast, recovered by the state division of fish and wildlife in 2018. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Kim’s American lawyer, Jeremy Lessem, wrote in courtroom paperwork that his shopper had hoped to make use of the vegetation he had taken from different nations to develop succulents on his personal farm. Kim had grown up poor, Lessem wrote, and noticed uncommon vegetation as a approach to earn more money “that he could use to pay for the education of his two girls”.

“Harvesting plants on public land in South Korea was often ignored or met with monetary fines,” Lessem wrote.

What is evident is that when Kim flew into LAX from Mexico in October 2018, he and his two assistants, Youngin Back and Bong Jun Kim, had been totally on the radar of California’s environmental cops.

Game wardens of the state’s fish and wildlife division noticed Kim renting a minivan and filling it with empty backpacks, plastic bins and bins. The three males later started a two-day drive up the California coast, in response to courtroom data.

Wardens surveilled the trio for greater than every week as they stealthily navigated round state parks on California’s distant northern coast, filling their backpacks with dudleya, an engaging native succulent.

The males dropped off their haul at the Secret Garden Nursery in Vista, California, then returned north for 2 days to dig up extra succulents in Mendocino, this time speaking with handheld radios.

The wardens waited whereas Kim, who used the alias “Neo”, obtained paperwork to have the southern California nursery legally export 259 kilos of dudleya. He claimed that every one the vegetation had originated in San Diego.

They waited when the males transported dozens of plant bins to an export facility in Compton.

Then, as Kim and his companions ready to drive away, the wardens made the arrests. The bins Kim had tried to export contained greater than 600 kilos of succulents, or 3,715 particular person vegetation, greater than double what the export paperwork described.

An ideal sufferer

California recreation wardens began going after plant thieves in 2018 after succulent thefts exploded in each California and the Western Cape of South Africa – areas with related Mediterranean-style climates, which made them succulent poaching hotspots.

The public response was “overwhelmingly positive”, mentioned Captain Patrick Foy, a spokesman for California’s fish and wildlife division. The response to poaching enforcement is typically damaging, however when it got here to succulents, “people were furious”, Foy mentioned.

Dudleya farinosa growing on the Pacific coast bluffs in California.
Dudleya farinosa rising on the Pacific coast bluffs in California. Photograph: Ed Reschke/Getty Images

It most likely helped that the vegetation being taken had been widespread, with widespread title recognition. Dudleya farinosa, the kind of dudleya most wanted by California poachers, is especially “charismatic” to people, specialists say. They boast the exact combine of qualities that Americans demand from crime victims: they’re fairly and small, very fragile and but curiously resilient. Their frequent title, “liveforevers”, is claimed to have been given to them by Nineteenth-century European naturalists, who had been shocked to search out samples of the plant nonetheless alive after months-long ocean voyages. Dudleya don’t thrive in home captivity. “Treat them like a petunia, and they’ll be dead,” mentioned Stephen McCabe, a California succulent knowledgeable.

The wardens discovered allies in California environmentalists, who handed alongside suggestions, recognized poached vegetation and served as knowledgeable witnesses. While some dudleya are fairly frequent, many species develop in only some locations, and some had been already threatened by two of California’s most persistent risks: wildfire and luxurious improvement, mentioned McCabe.

Plant advocates warned that some species of dudleya had been so uncommon that, in the event that they had been focused by poachers, they could go extinct, inflicting broader harm to total ecosystems.

“It’s not hard to imagine a hillside denuded of dudleya that then sloughs off into the ocean because it doesn’t have any plants to hold it there,” mentioned Nick Jensen, the conservation challenge supervisor at the California Native Plant Society.

‘A major smuggler’

Kim and his assistants had been charged with conspiracy and with violating a California legislation against destruction or elimination of plant materials on public land. Wardens estimated the stolen dudleya had been value $600,000 on the South Korean market.

The California state prices had been solely the starting. The US lawyer’s environmental crimes unit wished to make an instance out of the case. “In our view, a major smuggler who needed to be stopped,” mentioned Matthew O’Brien, the assistant US lawyer who prosecuted the federal case.

In May 2019, when Kim realized about the federal prices, he fled. His passport had been confiscated, however Kim had gone to the South Korean embassy in Los Angeles, mentioned he had misplaced his passport and been issued a brand new one. He crossed the border with Mexico on foot, and flew from there to China, then again to South Korea.

Five months later, Kim re-emerged, this time on the different finish of the globe. South African investigators caught him illegally harvesting greater than 2,000 uncommon conophytum succulents, together with yet another than 250 years previous and dozens greater than a century previous.

Shortly after taking over the case, prosecutor Anne Heeramun obtained a name from an American fish and wildlife officer working as an embassy attache: her new suspect was already a fugitive from justice in the US.

The South African prosecutors highlighted the “severity” and “brutality” of Kim’s “crime against nature”, and how stealing “large, ancient ‘mother’ plants” put the total species in danger, particularly throughout occasions of severe drought.

“The collection of these plants is an ecological tragedy,” they wrote.

The actual demand for smuggled vegetation

Kim pleaded responsible to the prices in South Africa and paid a big high quality. After a yr in South African jail, he was extradited to the US in October 2020.

His case, like related ones earlier than it, drew important media consideration. Coverage of succulent smuggling typically targeted on the market demand for succulents in Asia, with specialists pointing to the rising center courses in South Korea and China, and the reputation of succulents as status-markers for hipsters and housewives.

Wild vegetation had specific cachet in Asia, California recreation wardens urged: “It’s like having a Fendi bag on Rodeo Drive,” one warden told a student journalist. “A dudleya farinosa from the wild bluffs of Mendocino, California, especially a five-headed one, is apparently a super cool thing to have.”

A weather beaten Dudleya Echeveria flower on the warm, salty rocks of California’s Big Sur coastline.
A weather-beaten dudleya echeveria flower on the heat, salty rocks of California’s Big Sur shoreline. Photograph: H Matthew Howarth [flatworldsedge]/Getty Images

Over the years, that narrative has been challenged. Early discussions about plant poaching had been full of “stereotypes and tropes” about an “Asian super-consumer”, motivated by obscure “east Asian cultural traditional practices”, mentioned Jared Margulies, a political ecologist at the University of Alabama.

But when Margulies investigated the market in Seoul, he discovered no dudleya on the market at the shops the place “hipsters and housewives” shopped for vegetation.

There was additionally a botanical purple flag: dudleya had been finicky houseplants, prone to die shortly – an odd selection for the mass shopper.

In truth, Margulies discovered, the purpose dudleya had been smuggled to South Korea was not as a result of of native demand, however as a result of of its high-end greenhouses, the place tough wild dudleya could possibly be pampered for a couple of years, rising bigger and extra lush, earlier than being offered for elite costs on the international market.

Many of the vegetation trafficked to South Korea most likely ended up being resold elsewhere, Margulies concluded, to collectors in South Korea, China, Europe and the US.

The case in Crescent City

Margulies’ analysis would have a serious affect on Kim. As an knowledgeable witness in Kim’s case, he decreased the authorities’s estimate of the market worth of Kim’s wild succulent haul – from greater than $600,000 to someplace between $100,000 and $255,000. Federal sentencing tips carefully observe the worth of stolen items.

US prosecutors requested that Kim be sentenced to 3 years in jail as a deterrent to different smugglers.

Lessem, Kim’s lawyer, argued that he had suffered sufficient. He had contracted Covid-19 in jail, Lessem mentioned, and lived in concern of contracting it once more. His assault by one other inmate, which left him together with his jaw wired shut, was half of the toll of being imprisoned in a rustic the place he didn’t converse the language.

Expressing some agreement with Lessem’s arguments, the choose sentenced Kim to 2 years, at the decrease finish of the guideline.

The Bureau of Prisons additional credited Kim’s jail time in South Africa in the direction of his sentence, a justice division spokesperson mentioned. But that didn’t imply that Kim was launched.

Instead, his federal time served, Kim was transported in late January to the custody of the Del Norte county sheriff, in Crescent City, a distant northern California city of about 6,000 individuals.

Kim is now dealing with two extra circumstances in state courtroom, one for his authentic succulent thefts, and one for fleeing the nation throughout that prosecution, in response to his new lawyer, Joseph Futrell, who mentioned neither he nor his shopper would remark.

In California, dudleya smuggling has dramatically decreased lately, however South Africa has seen a brand new surge in “floral matters”, Heeramun mentioned. This time, it’s locals dealing with jail time. Foreigners are nonetheless driving the succulent commerce, she mentioned, however they’ve responded to prosecution by “using locals to do the gathering and the picking”.

One approach to stop the poaching of uncommon vegetation is just to domesticate as many of the coveted vegetation as potential, thus lowering the market worth of stolen vegetation. But environmental activists additionally proceed to endorse powerful prison punishments. In 2021, the California Native Plant Society helped cross a state legislation specifically criminalizing dudleya poaching, with fines of as much as $500,000 and six months in jail.

“It’s very sad if people are compelled to come to California, or anywhere, and remove a wild organism from its natural habitat, and they end up in jail,” Jensen mentioned. “It’s just a sad story all the way around that I’m concerned, for the plant and the people.”

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