The Venus flytrap's precarious survival in the wild along the coast of the Carolinas faces an added threat from poachers looking to cash in by uprooting and selling them.
Three people were arrested this week and charged with uprooting an endangered species without permission, a misdemeanor. North Carolina wildlife enforcement officer Matt Criscoe says they took about 200 of the bug-eating plants, which they expected to sell for about 10 cents apiece.
"One of the females told us, `Times are tough; we need some money,'" Criscoe said Wednesday. "That could be the case or it's just an easy way to make money."
Those prices are well below the 25 cents per plant poachers have pocketed in recent years for Venus flytraps yanked from the sandy coastal soil, said spokeswoman Debbie Crane of the state chapter of the nonprofit group The Nature Conservancy. The plant's only wild habitat is in areas within 100 miles of the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina
Once the plants pass through the hands of middlemen and unscrupulous business operators, they can sell for as much as $15 each at roadside stands and on Internet sites, Crane said.
"The people who are poaching them aren't making a whole lot of money," Crane said. "There's a huge market for them. The problem is most people, once they get them, they die because they don't know how to grow them. ... You can't fertilize them. They grow in really horrible soil; they're getting their fertilization from dissolving insects."
The plant's survival is precarious because its habitat includes highly desired coastal real estate. Wildfires, which actually spur the plant's growth, have also been tamped down to protect people and property.
Flytraps are especially popular overseas, and they're increasingly used for medicinal purposes.
Each year, poachers in North Carolina look to cash in by ripping up wild ginseng, galax, Venus flytraps and insect-eating pitcher plants. Yet the perennial problem is only lightly punished. The state legislature last summer increased the penalties from $10 to $25 and required flytrap dealers to get state permits.
"Unfortunately, they're doing it quite a bit down here," Criscoe said.
Wildlife officers issue 10 to 20 citations per year against poachers taking Venus flytraps, state Wildlife Resources Commission spokesman Geoff Cantrell said.
Charged this week were Joyce Whaley, 71; her nephew Kasey Whaley, 31; and his wife Elizabeth Whaley, 27, all of Shallotte, Criscoe said. They were cited for uprooting an endangered species without permission, a misdemeanor that carries a $25 penalty. None of the three returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Wildlife officers turned over the palm-sized plants to The Nature Conservancy, which operates the swampy preserve from which where they were taken, and they were replanted.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio