Chapel Hill, N.C.–As the soft dawn breaks through the coastal-North Carolina mist, hunters armed with trowels head to the marshes. Unlike their blaze-orange counterparts, these hunters crouch in the weeds and pray they remain unnoticed.

Their hunt doesn’t have a season; it’s illegal year-round.

Poachers search the soggy ground for venus flytraps. When they find a patch of their prey, they dig up as many as they can find, shove them in backpacks and head off to sell them.

In the face of poaching and habitat destruction, the venus flytrap’s existence in the wild is threatened. Without venus flytraps, North Carolinians would lose a treasured state plant and teaching tool. A new state law hopes to prevent this by classifying poaching as a felony.

Venus flytraps are small, carnivorous plants. The plant’s leaves serve as a trap for bugs that’s just a little bigger than a thumb-nail. Each leaf has two oval pieces joined by a hinge. When a bug lands in the trap, the leaf snaps closed in a second’s time. The plant digests the bugs and turns them into energy.

Venus flytraps growing in the native carnivorous plants garden at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

Venus flytraps growing in the native carnivorous plants garden at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

The venus flytrap grows in the wild within a 50 mile range of Wilmington, N.C. said Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

“It’s an incredibly unique plant. There’s nothing like it in the world,” Randall said. “Most people don’t know that it’s essentially native to North Carolina.”

Habitat destruction threatens the flytrap

Because the venus flytrap’s native habitat is so small, it’s particularly vulnerable to change. Debbie Crane, director of communications for the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy, says that people built houses and businesses on a lot of the flytrap’s original habitat.

Another major habitat issue is that areas with venus flytraps need to be regularly burned. If they’re not, other plants grow too tall and block the flytraps from the sun. As the local and tourist populations have increased along the coast, burning has all but ceased.

David Welch, plant conservation administrator with the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, said that in recent years a threat bigger than habitat change emerged.

Black market flytraps

“Poaching is becoming more and more prevalent and more and more of a threat,” Welch said.

The poaching of venus flytraps boggles many people who work with the plant. The Nature Conservancy recently wrapped up a fruitless investigation into who was buying the poached plants. The rumors are endless and as murky as the brackish coastal waterways.

The poachers are generally people in need of some extra money. Venus flytrap poaching, Randall says, seems to be just another kind of petty theft.

But they’re not making much money. Crane estimates that they get about 25 cents per plant.

Larry Mellichamp, biology professor and director of the botanical garden at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, thinks that the poachers don’t understand the precarious state of the venus flytrap.

“People that live down there view it as a natural resource,” Mellichamp said of the flytraps. “They think they’re abundant because they see them all the time. Just because they are quite abundant does not mean they’re safe.”

Though most conservationists agree about who the poachers are, no one is certain who is buying the plants from them.

Rumors abound as flytraps go missing

Initially, many people believed that the demand was caused by a company called Carnivora. Carnivora is a system of dietary supplements created from the crushed up venus flytraps. It’s not a cheap product, the 21-month program can be purchased for $1,582.60.

On a forum called CureZone, dancinggirl703 posted a thread titled, “I cured my cancer with Carnivora.” Dancinggirl703 says that she began using Carnivora after she met someone who, “Had seen first hand how it had cured so many people of even late stage cancers–all kinds–too.”

In his book German Cancer Therapies, Morton Walker, a holistic medicine journalist, wrote that Ronald Reagan used Carnivora to prevent colon cancer. “He drank 30 drops of the extract in a glass of purified water or herb tea four times a day,” Walker wrote.

The American Cancer Society refutes the effectiveness of Carnivora. The society’s website reads: “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that extract from the venus flytrap plant is effective in treating skin cancer or any other type of cancer.”

The Carnivora explanation, with its mysterious, expensive German supplements and name-dropped U.S. presidents seemed the perfect fit for the strange crime of venus flytrap poaching, but it has some flaws.

“I was in a botanical garden in Germany and they showed me where they were cloning their flytraps there,” said Crane.

She continued to note that there is no evidence suggesting that massive shipments of flytraps are being flown overseas. And those shipments would have to be large. In some of the biggest thefts, poachers took up to 2,000 plants at a time.

One such theft occurred at a local Wilmington elementary school. Elementary students joined college students and conservationists to replant the garden, but no one is sure where the original plants went.

Crane is certain that poachers are selling their plants at flea markets, out of the backs of pickup trucks and small stores. But she agrees that 2,000 plants are a lot to sell to a small-scale market.

Randall offered another explanation.

“It’s the nursery industry that’s driving this but only probably a handful of unscrupulous people,” Randall said.

Tom Ericson is the owner of The Transplanted Garden, a nursery in Wilmington, NC. Ericson has no idea how nurseries could be causing the demand for the poached plants.

“I have no idea where that many of them go all at once. I just don’t know where they would go.” Ericson said.

He goes to great lengths to ensure that the venus flytraps he sells at the Transplanted Garden aren’t poached.

Venus flytraps for sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The garden gets their flytraps from a reputable vendor to avoid poached plants. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

Venus flytraps for sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The garden gets their flytraps from a reputable vendor to avoid poached plants. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

Ericson buys his venus flytraps from a vendor in Florida who grows the plants from root cuttings. According to Randall, this is not a difficult process and nurseries can get 25 plants from one root cutting.

Ericson’s vendor charges him about $4 per plant. Compare this to the 25 cent price tag on a poached plant and it becomes evident why some nurseries might choose to go the illegal route.

Ericson won’t.

“If somebody came to me and said they were going to sell me plants for a dollar a piece, I’d call the police.”

So in the search for the demand-source, there are more rumors than answers. While the speculation swirls, conservationists worry that the flytrap could become locally extinct.

“Just in my lifetime we’ve lost half of the places where flytraps grow,” Mellichamp said. “We’re down to five or ten percent of the locations that were once known.”

The importance of the flytrap

In many ways, this little plant with long teeth has become the symbol for North Carolina’s native biodiversity. Crane said that losing it would be devastating.

“If you poach them in the wild they’re going to be gone. When these poachers are stealing them, they’re taking our state’s natural heritage.”

The venus flytrap also plays an important role in the classroom. The plant gets its food from bugs rather than the ground. This is an adaptation to the sandy coastal soil which doesn’t contain many nutrients.

“It’s such a perfect example of evolutionary biology and it’s a great way to explain how natural selection works to the general public and to school kids and such cause it’s such a pure adaptation to living in a nutrient poor environment,” Randall said.

Ericson noted that his nursery sees a big rush in venus flytrap purchases throughout the fall. He attributes this to kids working on class projects.

Venus flytraps don’t only attract the attention of school kids, they also help boost tourism. Mellichamp, said that many tourists come to the botanical garden at UNC-Charlotte to see the unique plant.

“People want to see venus flytraps,” Mellichamp said. “They ask about where they can go see them in the wild.”

Durham Artist Jenny Marsh's sculpture "Audrey" on display in the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Photo by Samantha Harrington

Durham Artist Jenny Marsh’s sculpture “Audrey” on display in the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Photo by Samantha Harrington

For now, there are still a handful of preserves with large numbers of wild venus flytraps. The Green Swamp Preserve in Supply, NC is famous for its venus flytraps.

“We’ve had people travel from as far away as Tazmania to see venus flytraps in the Green Swamp,” Crane said.

But just because these plants are on protected land doesn’t mean that they’re safe. Poachers target preserves as well.

The fight to save the flytraps

Conservationists have adopted a variety of strategies to fight poaching.

The Nature Conservancy recently received a grant from Pepsico to increase community education about the flytrap. Crane hopes that this helps residents to see the value in protecting the flytrap.

Additionally, Welch says the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program plans to list the flytrap as a threatened species sometime in 2015 or 2016. This classification will extend the plant more protection.

Conservation organizations aren’t the only ones working to protect the plant. The North Carolina General Assembly got in on the action too.

On December 1, 2014 a North Carolina law went into effect that made the poaching of venus flytraps a felony in New Hanover, Brunswick, Onslow, and Pender Counties.

Randall hopes the new law will stop some of the poaching.

“The penalties have been so low that it doesn’t discourage anyone. Felonies,” Randall said, “that’s a serious crime. You can go to jail or have high fines rather than the $50. That wasn’t a deterrent.”

Will this new law be more effective? That remains to be seen.