The men traveled Highway 101 in budget rental cars, stopping at remote state parks with stunning vistas as they snaked their way along the Northern California coast. To a casual observer, Byungsu Kim, 44, Youngin Back, 45, and Bong Jun Kim, 44, might have seemed like yet another group of road-tripping tourists on the scenic highway, marveling at the towering redwoods and the waves crashing against dizzying bluffs.
But wildlife detectives who had been tracking the three South Korean nationals since they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2018 noticed that their rented minivan was full of boxes and rubber totes. Watching from a distance, wardens saw what they were stuffing inside: Dudleya succulents, which have spiky bluegreen leaves immediately recognizable to anyone on Pinterest and Instagram.
On Friday, the three men were charged with stealing more than $600,000 worth of wild succulents from public lands and attempting to smuggle them into Asia, where a lucrative black market for the trendy houseplants is flourishing.
The bust, which led to the seizure of more than 3,700 plants, was part of a larger crackdown on succulent poachers who are believed to be part of international smuggling rings. Overseas, the plants retail for as much as $50 each, according to wildlife officials, and are a highly prized consumer good among the growing middle class.
"These plants are a boom in Korea, China and Japan," Patrick Freeling, a game warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Guardian. "It's huge among housewives. It's a status thing."
Frequently found in artisanal coffee shops or in millennial-chic apartments, succulents are ubiquitous enough to be a design cliché. But the succulent craze has gone global, with potentially disastrous effects.
According to the Guardian, the plants have become so popular in Korea and China that they are sold in stores the size of multiple basketball courts.
Dudleya, a genus encompassing dozens of species native to the West Coast, plays a crucial role in the delicate ecosystems of California's wind-battered cliffs, where they help to fight erosion. Some of those species are considered threatened or endangered, and the population has recently been devastated by wildfires.
Now, experts worry that the rarest types of Dudleya could be driven to extinction if poachers keep ripping out thousands at a time. Though Dudleya can be grown in nurseries, they take years or even decades to mature, and commercial growers have struggled to keep up as succulent mania spreads from South Korea to China. Kang Suk-Jung, who owns a nursery in Hojawon, South Korea, told NPR last year that once Chinese customers started buying succulents, "even tens of thousands of plants would not meet the demand." Besides, he said, it was tough to replicate the look of the most sought-after species.
"Those plants had survived in their natural habitats for decades through rain and wind," he said. "That's what makes them beautiful."
Until December 2017, authorities had no idea that thousands of succulents were being stolen from state parks. Then, a frustrated postal customer called California Fish and Wildlife with a tip. The woman had grown exasperated while waiting to mail a Christmas package at the tiny post office in Mendocino. A man ahead of her was shipping 60 packages to China. Curious, she asked what was in the boxes.
"Shhhh, something very valuable," the man said, putting one finger to his lips.
Freeling, the game warden who received the tip, asked U.S. customs to X-ray the packages. The tipster had suspected that the boxes held abalone, an edible sea snail often illegally harvested by divers. They turned out to contain dozens of succulents, he told NPR.