In my last two articles, I have spoken about the human influence on the over-exploitation of medicinal plants, plants used for health purposes, by uninformed local peoples and herbal companies that sell ‘organic and sustainable’ products. However, there are individuals who know well that they are abusing the plants they harvest or gather and other species who rely on that particular plant. Individuals with the intent to harvest medicinal plants illegally (either because they are endangered or harvesting is not permitted in that area) are known as poachers.
According to the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association, poaching is the “illegal killing or taking of any wildlife”. As the poachers run off with wild medicinal plants illegally, their numbers dwindle against the odds of predators, natural barriers, and the inability to reproduce at a young age. Unfortunately with the over exploitation by poachers, there are many threatened medicinal plants, plants that are likely to become endangered, and many endangered medicinal plants, plants that are on the verge of extinction. A list of the endangered and threatened species can be found on United Plant Saver’s website. The poacher’s contribution has left a scar on many plants and their ecosystems.
With the commercialization of certain herbs, or medicinal plants, these plants have become a commodity that led to increased harvesting. When poachers greedily harvest these herbs, they put pressure on the plants and the plants environment by taking so many at once, not giving the plants a chance to reproduce and raise its population count. Extinction can easily happen as many herbs grow very slowly, and most of the time, their roots are harvested and used for medicinal purposes, leaving the plant without the chance to refurbish itself. “It’s one of those things that’s not going to stop until it’s all gone”, stated Joel Bourne in On the Trail of Poachers. Hydrastis canadensis L. or Goldenseal is a primary example of an endangered medicinal plant over-harvested by poachers. It is a slow-growing perennial herb, commonly found in the woodlands of east United States and southern Canada. It takes about 4-5 years to age before it reproduces, explaining why the population growth is so short and unfortunately, is at least threatened in around 28 states. Nearly half of the goldenseal population in the states of Ohio and Kentucky are extinct through poaching.
Medicinal plants are not the only species affected by poaching. When a particular plant species starts to disappear, the animals in that particular ecosystem of the plant are also affected. The dwindling numbers of herbs leave many other animals looking a new source of food or raw materials for their shelter. When Actaea racemosa, the Black Cohosh, became endangered, the species that feed on it were also affected. Black Cohosh serves as food for the common herbivores in the woodlands (deers, rabbits), and also the larvae of the Celastrina ladon, or the Spring Azure Butterfly. As the poachers over exploited the Black Cohosh, these three species lost a source food. “The plants are important parts of their ecosystems. And plants are more interconnected in their alliance of one another than humans are”, stated by Betsy of the United Plant Savers. .“When you take certain plants out of the ecosystem, you are changing the web of life, and that is generally to the detriment of the beings living there”. This detriment is certainly seen in ecosystems where plants have become threatened and/or endangered.
The poachers serve as an enemy to ecosystems they invade as they pick plants from their habitats. Fortunately, many have found ways to stop them in their tracks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture marked American ginseng roots with a permanent dye and tag them with electronic tracking devices to catch illegal poachers. But this is not enough to stop poachers. “Some [companies] do not critically examine their sources and could be buying poached products. This would most likely be happening through middle men who are buying from poachers as well as other people”, stated Dr. Laurell Matthews. It is important for companies to monitor the suppliers of their products to avoid buying illegally gathered herbs from poachers. Yet, sometimes companies choose not monitor this.
Since all companies do not monitor how their raw materials are harvested, consumers should keep their eyes on the labels of each product as well as the company’s site. Not buying from sustainable companies will catch the attention of greedy company owners and lead them on the ride side of the track- protecting the medicinal plants from abuse. If one takes Betsy’s words into consideration, the greedy poachers and companies alike will disappear: “Be choosy about purchasing products that say organically cultivated on the label and what not and try to educate the herbal product industry to source responsibly”.