To catch a ginseng thief
With the ginseng season just getting under way, federal and state law enforcement officers again are turning to cutting-edge technology in their efforts to root-out poachers.
Dye, coded chips and DNA markers are now widely used to deter and detect poachers in 13 states, including North Carolina, and at least two other countries. The use of markers was pioneered by Sylva resident Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.
“We know it works as a deterrent,” he said. “In one study, it was 98-percent effective in keeping poachers out of the system.”
Twenty-five poachers were identified and then watched. Of that group, just one actively continued to dig ginseng illegally, Corbin said. He attributed that decrease to increased efforts to mark plants and prosecute offenders.
Ginseng has long been sought in Asia, where the root has for centuries enjoyed a reputation as a heal-all elixir and aphrodisiac. So much so, Asian ginseng has been wiped out of existence in China, increasing collecting pressures on its kissing cousin, American ginseng. The market for ginseng also has exploded recently in the U.S.
“Its popularity has moved from traditional uses to use as a modern herbal medicine,” said Nancy Gray of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “And poaching continues to be a huge issue for us in this park.”
It is illegal to collect ginseng from the Smokies. It can, however, legally be harvested from private lands — permission is required to harvest off private lands that are not one’s own — and permits to collect on most national forest lands are available.
Strict prohibition hasn’t stopped poachers from helping themselves to the declining ginseng population in the Smokies, though.
Since 1992, more than 11,000 roots illegally gathered have been seized by law enforcement and returned to the Smokies, Gray said.
“But we know that’s only a small percentage of what we think has actually been taken from this park,” she said, adding that the illegal activity is now taking place during the summer months, not just during the traditional mountain “sanging” time in the fall.
Red berries appear in the fall. These can help to more easily identify the nondescript, five-leaved plant. But many poachers are adept at spotting the herb even without the distinctive berry cluster, and start illegally collecting it almost as soon as the ginseng emerges from the ground. They are also harvesting the plant at younger and younger stages.
Some dealers, recognizing that the ginseng roots they are being sold sometimes have been harvested illegally, do return roots to the Smokies for replanting, Gray said.
The dye marker used in the Smokies is bright, University of Tennessee orange, and the roots bearing the dye are ruined for commercial use. The calcium-based dye is environmentally safe. Just enough dirt is scraped away to expose the ginseng root and the dye is applied.
Markers with information identifying where the plant was growing are also sometimes inserted into roots.
Ginseng grows very slowly.
“It takes about seven years for the plant to reproduce,” Gray said. “So even if we do replant, it takes a long time for it to recover.”
In addition to using the markers, rangers have been aggressively prosecuting captured poachers. There were three convictions in 2008 and two convictions in 2009.
Wild ginseng fetches a higher price than that cultivated commercially. Scott Persons, coauthor of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals, helped develop most of the cultivation methods now widely used today.
Persons has been growing ginseng at Tuckasegee Valley Ginseng in Jackson County for three decades.
It can be cultivated in a way that simulates wild conditions, he said. This could help relieve some of the poaching pressures on the coveted herb.
“If you have a great place for ginseng, stick it in the ground and let it grow naturally, it will look natural,” Persons said.
Persons has cultivated ginseng for 30 years, but over time, word of his high-dollar crop spread and his ginseng plot became the target of poachers.
He installed hidden cameras, marked his roots, got new dogs and relied on the watchful eyes of neighbors to alert him to trespassers. But even then, poachers would come onto his property in broad daylight.
Those with large operations may resort to motion detector cameras with night-vision capabilities, live-streaming video, motion-triggered alarms and even a hired man to patrol the perimeter, Persons said.
“If you have a lot of ginseng growing, you can afford to have security measures to protect your crop, but it is a limiting factor,” said Persons.
Poaching got so aggravating that Persons says he has drastically scale back his ginseng cultivation. Because of the struggling economy, Corbin is worried that poachers will be hitting the woods this fall in force. That pressure might further intensify if prices, as early numbers indicate, go even higher.
A pound of wild ginseng is currently fetching about $110. There are approximately 50 roots to a pound, Corbin said.
The Swain and Jackson County Extension Service is taking orders for ginseng seed. The cost is $10 per ounce and $150 per pound. Payment must accompany orders. Interested buyers can bring their checks by the Swain or Jackson County Extension Service offices or mail to P.O. Box 2329, Bryson City, N.C., 28713. Orders must be placed by Sept. 16. 828.488.3848 or 828.586.4009 for information.