South African customs officials recently became suspicious when they noticed that shipments of "Made in China" children's toys were being sent, oddly, back to China.
On closer inspection, the packages did not contain toys at all but were filled with poached contraband.
Chinese criminal syndicates, often the very same ones that already have established smuggling routes in South Africa for illegal abalone or rhinoceros horns, have now moved on to trafficking in elephant's foot.
But elephant's foot is not what you think.
It is a type of succulent — unique plants with fleshy parts that retain water and grow in arid areas like South Africa's vast Karoo — and its greyish wrinkled bulb bears a startling resemblance to a pachyderm's pad.
It's just one kind of succulent that's being pulled out of the wilderness at what scientists say are alarming rates, and many of the rare plants — some of which are up to 100 years old and may only be found on a single rocky outcrop — are now nearing extinction.
Social media craze
The Succulent Karoo biome is a globally recognized biodiversity area that stretches all the way from Namibia right down into South Africa's Western Cape province.
"We have incredibly special plants that occur nowhere else in the world, and it is part of South Africa's heritage," said Ismail Ebrahim, a scientist with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
He said some species, particularly succulents like conophytums, are now "on the brink of extinction."
Some 1.5 million South African succulents have been removed from the wild over the past three years, according to SANBI.
While succulents were always beloved by amateur botanists and collectors, they've gained a broader fan base since the pandemic, experts told VOA on a recent trip to the Little Karoo organized by WWF South Africa, which is coordinating efforts to combat the illegal trade.
With people in lockdown, isolated and unable to go out into nature, a trend for houseplants started on social media, with influencers — or "plantfluencers" — calling themselves plant moms and dads and extolling the virtues of ornamental houseplants.
"I would see the appeal of having something in my house because … they're very unique," said Emily Norma Kudze, senior scientific coordinator for the illegal succulent trade with SANBI. "Ornamental value is now becoming a thing. I think just because of how they grow has brought in the trendiness of having them in your homes."
The number of plants confiscated by South African law enforcement has increased by more than 200 percent since 2018, with over 242,000 succulents seized last year alone, according to CapeNature, a government organization that looks after wilderness areas in the Western Cape.
The South African government has developed a national action plan to try and address the growing trade.
Paul Gildenhuys, a CapeNature enforcement specialist, has been involved with cracking down on smuggling syndicates.
The collecting and export of succulents without a permit is prohibited under South African law and those caught poaching them can face a fine or prison time, Gildenhuys said. The poaching of endangered flora carries the highest penalty, a 400,000 rand fine or 10 years jail.
More than 90 arrests were made last year according to CapeNature. Thanks to informants, the majority of people are caught in vehicles on the highway while transporting the plants.
But prosecutions often lead to relatively small fines and suspended sentences and those caught are usually on the lower rungs of the trafficking groups — locals working for international syndicates who go and dig up the plants.
Still, with high levels of unemployment and poverty in the area, succulent poaching can be an attractive option for South Africans despite the low amounts of money they make.
"The succulent Karoo is a very vast, very arid landscape and there are very limited economic opportunities," said WWF-SA's Katherine Forsythe. "[In] the illegal trade unfortunately, all of the benefit is going overseas, while people on the ground in South Africa aren't receiving any benefit."
The poached plants are sent to an address in China or Hong Kong — sometimes through Johannesburg's busy O.R. Tambo Airport, but often simply through the mail or by courier, said Gildenhuys.
Officials VOA spoke to did not want to give exact monetary figures, to avoid encouraging the trade in succulents, but said the profits to be made by foreign-run smuggling syndicates were significant.
Carl Brown, another CapeNature enforcement officer, said while there's some illegal trade of South African succulents to the U.S. and E.U., China dominates.
Of the almost 400,000 plants seized in the Western Cape between 2019 and 2022, 98.7% of all plants were destined for the Chinese market, according to CapeNature.
"Hundreds of thousands of succulents are going to China weekly," he told VOA.
Brown said he thinks the demand in China is partially due to the growing urban middle class in the world's second-largest economy.
"Now you have the average Chinese citizen with disposable income looking for things that they can decorate their house with, and if you're living in a high-rise building, you only have a certain amount of space," he said, adding that sometimes a houseplant is the only bit of green in a person's home.
Chinese efforts to stop trade
Brown said buyers might not even be aware their plant was illegally pulled out of the ground in South Africa — and admitted the issue does not get people as worked up as something such as rhino poaching.
But he stressed that the trade is having devastating effects.
"A plant the size of my hand that's being smuggled to China could be 150 years old, and that's one of the plants that's setting seeds to replace itself in the ecosystem that's now been removed," he said.
There are various pages on the internet that offer succulent plants for sale, such as eBay and Etsy, and Chinese social media, according to CapeNature.
Scientific books on succulent types have also been translated into Mandarin recently, so people know what they are looking for.
Asked by VOA what the country is doing to try to end the poaching, the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria replied by email saying South Africa and China have been cooperating on combating such crimes.
"Over the years, the law enforcement departments of the two countries have always maintained close cooperation in cracking down on crimes such as smuggling ivory, rhinoceros horns and rare plants. Our smooth cooperation has produced fruitful results, especially in intelligence sharing, evidence exchange and arresting suspects," the embassy said.
Additionally, the embassy said, Chinese diplomatic missions in South Africa have repeatedly reminded Chinese citizens and tourists in South Africa to avoid picking wild plants at will.