Magazine article Geographical

Trapped in the Carolinas

Magazine article Geographical

Trapped in the Carolinas

Article excerpt

In July, a man was sentenced to six months in prison after being caught stealing almost 1,000 Venus flytraps. The convicted poacher is the first to ever get jail time since stealing the plant became a felony last year. Laura Cole finds that in North Carolina, plants are a serious business

Officer Doug Jones pulled up by the dusty vehicle parked on the side of the road, outside the Holly Shelter Game Land in North Carolina. There was no one inside. He drove half a mile up the road, fixed his binoculars on the tangle of trees behind the empty car and waited. The drone of mosquitoes filled the silence before ... movement. Three figures picked their way out of the bushes, one with a backpack.

'As I approached, I saw they were two men and a woman,' says Jones. 'I asked to search the bag and the trunk of their vehicle. I found spades, digging equipment, plus 300 Venus flytraps.'

Jones is a law enforcement officer for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He has all the responsibilities of a police officer, but his main duty is to protect the wildlife, hunting and natural resources of the state, including its Venus flytraps.

Contrary to what you may believe, Venus flytraps are not tropical plants. In fact, if you were to draw a 70-mile radius around the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, you would be looking at the only place where they grow in the wild. It is also where a crime ring of plant thieves are busy uprooting the plants to sell on the black market. Equipped with machetes, spades and bags for the swag, flytrap poachers threaten to make the carnivorous plant extinct in their natural habitat.

'You can't be too sure of what kind of individual you're going to encounter,' he says, describing the poachers. 'It's often dirty work, they'll come out covered in mud as it's some pretty tough country to dig in. There are a lot of bugs and poisonous snakes. So you sometimes meet some that have weapons like handguns to protect themselves. We have to be careful.'

'Poachers have been caught with thousands of the plants,' says Dan Ryan, a Director of the Longleaf Pine program at the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that protects some of the last strongholds of flytrap populations. The last five to six years have been particularly bad.'

He's right, a quick scroll through the archives of WECT, Wilmington's local news channel, reveals hundreds of stories about flytrap theft. Particularly large hauls, such as the 970 plants found on Paul Simmons Jr, the poacher arrested in July, are taking big bites out of the dwindling population. 'We're in a very precarious situation right now,' says Ryan.

FAMOUS FLYTRAPS

The flytrap has always caught attention. The carnivorous eaters have inspired all kinds of nefarious characters in pop culture, from the man-eating alien in Little Shop of Horrors to life-depleting obstacles in videogames such as Super Mario Bros. But in many ways the botany is weirder than the fiction. For a start, the plant thrives on fire and will rise from the ashes of its shrubby competitors to make the most of available sunlight. With maturity, it produces a delicate white flower on a long stem, so that pollinators like bees are kept clear from all the killing. Close to the ground is where its traps are clustered, open-mouthed, like a nest of baby birds. Darwin called it 'one of the most wonderful plants'.

New research into their hunting mechanisms has revealed that the plants can count. 'At least to five,' says Rainer Hedrich, expert flytrap botanist at the Universitat Wurzburg in Germany. The inside of the traps are covered in trigger hairs. When one is touched, it waits. When a second is touched within 20 seconds, it snaps. By the fifth touch, the trap is flushed with a cocktail of digestive enzymes to begin breaking down its prey.' Even smarter, the flytrap calculates the number of trigger hairs touched as the prey struggles, so it only releases a proportionate amount of digesting poison. …

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