© Mike Spies / Namaqua Tours

Succulent plants combating the illegal trade in succulent plants

© Mike Spies / Namaqua Tours



Succulent plants, or ‘succulents’, are drought resistant plants which are slow growing, long lived, and occur in arid areas.

Africa has the highest number of native succulent species, many of which are in high demand for ornamental use by collectors in America, Europe, and Asia. Given that many of these species are endemic to South Africa and Namibia and occur in very small areas, illegal harvesting is a severe threat to the survival of many species in the wild.


illegally harvested succulent plants, representing 650 different species have been seized by authorities since 2019

6,000 species

of succulents are found in the Succulent Karoo of South Africa

>3,000 confiscated plants per week

require potting and processing for criminal cases

South Africa’s Succulent Plant Poaching Crisis

In South Africa, poaching is now rife in both private reserves and state protected areas in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. Since 2019, >1,000,000 illegally harvested succulents, representing 650 different species have been seized by authorities as the plants transit Southern Africa to overseas markets.

Within South Africa, confiscated plants require potting and processing for criminal cases at a rate of >3,000 plants a week, placing significant strain on conservation agencies. Reintroduction of seized plants to the wild is complicated through not knowing their precise place of origin. This illegal trade, much of which occurs online, has severely impacted biodiversity in arid zones such as the Succulent Karoo, which supports more than 6,000 succulent species, of which 40% are endemic. Single poaching episodes are thought to have resulted in whole species extinctions.

Combating the Illegal Succulent Plant Trade

In 2022, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and TRAFFIC were awarded funding from the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund (IWTCF) for the “Harnessing technology to end the illegal trade in succulent plants” project.

This project will provide a greater understanding of succulent plant trade dynamics to inform law enforcement strategy and action. Multidisciplinary research, from the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, such as the big data web scraper called FloraGuard, to personal interviews, will identify points of intervention and inform strategies to improve regulation and law enforcement actions. Development of chemical fingerprinting and marking techniques will enable traceability and transparency in trade, while aiding the reintroduction of confiscated plants to their original locality in the wild.

Dominique Prinsloo, TRAFFIC Project Manager

It is urgent that we obtain a better understanding of the dynamics of succulent plant crime, enhance tools for detection and enforcement and change online trading policies to combat this illegal trade

Dominique Prinsloo, TRAFFIC Project Manager

What we’re doing and why

Kew and TRAFFIC will identify prominent succulent plant taxa and quantify trade using data captured from the internet using artificial Intelligence (AI) tools. These tools will strengthen the ability of enforcement teams to detect, intercept and address indicators of illegal trade, and to conduct effective monitoring of online trade activity.

Using the 1998 Southern Africa succulent trade report as a comprehensive baseline, TRAFFIC will analyse trade information and interview stakeholders, which will inform a comprehensive understanding of the trade in Southern African succulents. Findings from this study will inform the design and production of training materials, delivered as a specialised curriculum for junior Environmental Management Inspectors (EMIs).

 TRAFFIC and Kew will engage with online platforms to encourage the adoption of trading policies and standards in the online sale of succulent plants. We will also support their efforts through the provision of awareness of plant IWT to their monitoring teams. Platforms will be identified with assistance from the 'Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online’.

Innovative tools and technology will be developed and tested to improve and facilitate the identification and intervention of illegally traded succulent flora. Kew will develop a provenance testing tool for succulent plants based on the analysis of stable isotopes and trace elements within plant tissues to determine the geographic origin of these organisms.

Donors and Partners

This project is funded by the UK Government through Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund (IWTCF), and implemented in partnership with Kew.