The pricey root crop called ginseng -- used in everything from tea to toothpaste -- is in huge demand throughout Asia and the West. But commercial harvesting of the slow-growing ginseng can't meet that demand, and that's meant high profits for ginseng farmers. But it's also encouraged poachers. Ginseng poaching is a major problem in some of America's national parks, where the roots grow wild. So park rangers are going high-tech in their battle to protect this popular plant.
Only a little bigger than a small carrot, the ginseng root has been prized in Asia for centuries. It's touted as an aphrodisiac and an energy booster. The root is said to resemble human or animal shapes… the word ginseng itself translates to "man root" in Chinese.
Ginseng has been harvested across the eastern third of America since colonial times. It's been dug in Kentucky since explorer Daniel Boone came through the Cumberland Gap in the 1700's and started digging it and exporting it to Asia himself.
While its medicinal value is debated today, its popularity isn't.
Kentucky leads the nation in the amount of ginseng produced each year. Kentucky's crop is worth about $8 million annually, but as much as half of that value is stolen by poachers.
In central Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, Ranger Larry Johnson has no trouble spotting the ginseng. He points it out to a reporter. "So all what we're seeing right here is ginseng. This is ginseng here, this is ginseng here, this is wild ginseng," he says. "It just happens to grow right here in an easily accessible place."
Yellow, sharply pointed leaves adorn plants that grow to almost one meter tall in the shade of the park's virgin oak trees. "These are some very large, impressive plants," Johnson says. "If a wild ginsenger was to find these he'd be tickled to death."
Here, like at dozens of other national parks in the east and the south, the valuable, wild ginseng is getting scarce. It's been designated a protected species in part because it's so easy to spot by poachers.
Johnson says poachers have damaged the crop so severely on private land that they've turned to public land to hunt for it. "We just arrested a couple of guys on the park and asked them why they weren't hunting where they were from, and their response was 'It's done been took.'"
Larry Faith was one of those two men arrested on poaching charges. He was fined $1500 and sentenced to two years probation after being caught. Despite his run-in with the law, Faith says he's undeterred. In the lightly regulated world of ginseng, he's now a licensed dealer.
"The diggers say one thing, then the dealers say another and other people like the park rangers say another," he says. "You hear different angles and I've been on all three ends of it, unfortunately."
Faith pays diggers up to $800 per kilogram for ginseng and then sells it to overseas brokers where a kilogram can fetch more than $2000. Larry Faith says dealers have to trust that the ginseng brought to them was dug legally on private land.
On public land at Mammoth Cave and at national parks in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere, park rangers like Larry Johnson are moving away from their hit-or-miss patrols and are instead using technology and science to catch poachers digging up ginseng plants.
"We have electronic sensors, we have cameras and other devices," he explains. "We've marked hundreds of ginseng roots this year with a detectable dye. The other type of dye we use you can't see with the naked eye. You need an x-ray machine or some other kind of machine to see the dye that's absorbed into the roots."
Johnson says he doesn't expect to halt ginseng poaching altogether, but he believes he can slow it down enough so that there will still be ginseng plants for future generations to enjoy.