Succulent smuggling: why are South Africa’s rare desert plants vanishing?

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Unique species in ‘the world’s most biodiverse desert’ are at risk from a warming planet and the lucrative plant poaching trade

In May 2020, 10mm of rain fell at Sendelingsdrif Rest Camp in South Africa’s most north-westerly corner. After enduring nine years of almost zero rain, Pieter van Wyk, a 32-year-old self-taught botanist who heads up the Richtersveld national park’s nursery, was elated to see several species flower for the first time in almost a decade. The rain, including 200mm on the nearby mountains, was a welcome respite for the world heritage site’s flora and fauna.

His joy, however, was short-lived. While the rain gave a temporary lease of life to some annuals and bulbs in the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld transfrontier park, it did little to alter the fact that scores of species, especially large succulent plants such as aloes, are in peril. A study to be published by Van Wyk and others shows that 85% of the population of the distinctive Pearson’s aloe (Aloe pearsonii) – endemic to the Richtersveld – has been lost in the past five years, having been a stable presence for the previous four decades.

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