New Law Aims to Deter Venus Flytrap Poaching: Is It Working?
The cottage industry of Venus flytrap poaching has long threatened this iconic carnivorous plant of southeastern North Carolina. The crime used to be a misdemeanor, but at the start of this year, it became a felony, with a maximum penalty of up to 25 months in jail. As the first felony cases wrap up in Pender County, WHQR investigates whether the change in the law is working to deter poaching.
Venus flytraps are considered a species of concern, meaning the population is in decline and in need of conservation . Flytrap poaching runs counter to such preservation efforts.
New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney Ben David was part of the effort to amp up penalties in the hopes of deterring people from digging up and selling the plants for profit.
Ben David: "We fought very hard to turn poaching flytraps from a misdemeanor into a felony. Our local legislative delegation worked with the local police and prosecutors to see that that was done, and that was achieved on January 1st of this year. And actually, we made the first arrest in this state and prosecuted people under that new law on the very first day courts were open in January."
Roger Shew is a UNCW geology professor who monitors flytrap plots in the Green Swamp, an ecological preserve in Brunswick County. Since the law’s passing, he says evidence indicates that poaching has decreased.
Roger Shew: "In the flytrap plots that my wife and I set up with the Nature Conservancy – we have 18 plots. In 2013 and 2014, twelve to fifteen of those plots were poached to some degree. This year, there’s been six of those plots that were poached. So, we’re hoping that it has a deterrent effect."
But District Attorney Ben David says that in order for the new law to act as a deterrent, people need to know it exists. David says the first defendants he prosecuted for the felony of flytrap poaching were caught unawares.
Ben David: "They wanted to plead guilty as charged and basically get back out on the street. When the judge informed them that they couldn’t plead guilty to these cases because they were felonies, and the court is only empowered to take misdemeanor pleas, they expressed shock that they were now looking at these charges. They had clearly put in their calculus of risk-reward that they were only risking misdemeanors, and they were only noticing for the first time that they were suddenly looking at numerous felony charges."
Roger Shew says that while the punishment for poaching is high, the payoff is relatively low.
Roger Shew: "People’s suspicion, on the cottage industry, they might make 25-50 cents per plant. So, it’s really nothing."
Isabelle Shepherd: "If the poachers can only make 25 to 50 cents per plant, why would they even spend the time doing that?"
Roger Shew: "I would like for you to ask one of them that question. Part of it is, we believe, this is just, you know, something that they’ve done. Some of them, you know, they don’t have jobs. And you look at hundreds of plants, they don’t just get ten plants at a time. But, as we say, if you were that industrious and hardworking to dig these plants up, you know, you might want to go find another job."
But these poachers are small potatoes when you look at the big picture. District Attorney Ben David says the real goal is to get information from the poachers that will lead law enforcement to the flytrap brokers – in other words, the people who are buying and selling these plants on the black market.