Inside the Weird World of Succulent Smuggling
A conversation with the author of The Cactus Hunters: Desire and Extinction in the Illicit Succulent Trade
It was questionable if we needed a second season of Tiger King — or, let’s be honest, a first season. Regardless, if Netflix ever decides it’s interested in a story that features surprisingly charming criminals, IWT violations, and yes, even possibly murder (but without the tabloid tone and mullets), producers might look in the future to Jared D. Margulies’ delightful debut, The Cactus Hunters: Desire and Extinction in the Illicit Succulent Trade.
Wait, illicit succulent trade? you might be wondering. Oh yes.
From the cliffs of California and the deserts of Brazil to the markets of Seoul and the private greenhouses of Czechia, Margulies follows the extraction and relocation of plants so rare that they might only exist in one valley or mountainside in the world. Weaving in ample philosophy and research about what drives these sorts of obsessions — as well as his personal reflections as he, in turn, is captivated by the lovable, spiky plants — The Cactus Hunters is just the right balance of edgy and academic.
Last week, I caught up with Margulies about the process of researching the book, being mistaken for an undercover cop by his subjects, and the lie that is “the green thumb,” among other topics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You open The Cactus Hunters with a story about how you were going to study the illegal trade of tiger bones when you came across a story about saguaro cactus rustling that piqued your interest and sent you on this journey. What most stands out to you as the differences between the illegal trade of animals and animal products and the world of illegal cactus trading?
To clarify, I never actually got around to studying the illegal trade in tiger bones. I had encountered it a little bit in my past research on human-wildlife conflicts.
But there are a lot of important differences: One of the things that made the illegal plant trade so interesting to study, compared to illegal trade in animals, is that it receives a lot less attention, so there was just a lot more to learn that people hadn’t already researched. But also, the way that this material and these plants can move around the world — there are so many more options available because of the nature of plants. So if what you’re after is the genetics of the plant, to be able to grow them somewhere else in the world, there’s not just the one plant but there’s the cacti propagate, for instance. Pups. Their seeds. You can make cuttings of plants. None of these things are really available to people interested in illegal trade and animals. That affects supply chains and how these things can move around the world.
Also, because of the lack of attention to illegal plant trade compared to animal trade, the subject is a lot less criminalized. I would argue that my access to informants and research participants was a lot better because it did happen that, every now and then, people thought I was a cop. Or maybe, like, an undercover detective. But usually within pretty short order, they realized that wasn’t the case and I was generally interested in trying to understand their perspectives. I think that it would be a lot harder to develop trust within certain trades that are a lot more heavily criminalized.
Over the course of the book, you encounter the Indiana Jones of plants and the Robin Hood of cacti, among others. Can you talk a little about why these enthusiasts, who clearly care deeply about conservation, sometimes break the law by smuggling seeds or entire cacti out of the places where they naturally grow?
One of the fascinating things that really gripped me was this seeming contradiction, where you have people who are made out as conservation villains by certain actors seeing themselves as unsung conservation heroes. The reason for that is, for a lot of these collectors, they saw their community as really passionate people who wanted to get access to the plants that become objects of their desires. By and large, the people who want these plants aren’t trying to do harm to the species in the world, and they care a lot about them. But they also recognize that in their desire is something fairly insatiable and that people are going to go to lengths to get the plant that they have to go to.
For a lot of these collectors, they might see engaging in a kind of illegal activity as still a socially acceptable behavior, if it meant it got material out into the world in a way that people might want it. And the goal there, the long-term goal, is to try to reduce demand on wild harvesting of plants and wild populations. If you get a little bit of material out into the communities that delight in these plants, then you can start grafting them, propagating them, growing them from seed, and, in theory, get that material out into the world.
I wanted to take that perspective seriously. It’s a hard thing to study empirically and so it was important for me to try to be open to a really diverse set of opinions about the right way to do conservation.
You leave most of the sources in the book, including those working within the law, anonymous. Why did you make that decision?
The really short answer is, I was part of a larger research project called BIOSEC, which was run by Professor Rosaleen Duffy at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Politics and International Relations, and we were using a fairly symmetrical ethics approval process, or what in the U.S. we would call an institutional review board approval. Because a number of us were studying illicit economies, in order to ensure research-subject protection and anonymity and security, we were required to make all of our sources anonymous.
But this caused some issues because, on the one hand, it meant that everyone in the book is anonymous, even if they’re people who are law enforcement officials or botanists who would have probably really enjoyed having their names in the book. I regret that.
Most interesting, though, were the number of collectors who were mad at me because they’re also anonymous. One of the reasons for that was they saw anonymity as being suggestive of wrongdoing and for a lot of these people, they don’t feel like what they’re doing is wrong, necessarily, even if it’s against the law. They wanted their story told. I think one of the reasons I had good access to the kinds of interlocutors I had was because they felt like I was providing a space for them to get their version of the story out into the world.
You were asked to be an expert witness in a case against a South Korean smuggler who took thousands of plants from the California coast. How do you navigate moments like this, when your position as an illicit trade researcher is perhaps in tension with your own ethical code?
This was a really difficult decision for me, and I write about this. I went back and forth about whether or not to serve as an expert witness, which in this case just required writing a statement. I never had to go to court or, you know, be on a witness stand — thank goodness. But I go back and forth about if I would do it again.
I think that in the end, I chose to do it because I realized that my testimony would only serve to probably reduce the sentence that this person was facing. And I don’t say that because I think that what they were doing was okay. It was really bad and really harmful to this species of plant. I just don’t think that criminalization and incarceration actually do rehabilitative work or serve much function. It costs us a lot of money as taxpayers and causes harm.
It was complicated; I guess that’s how I would leave it. I debated whether or not to include [the story] in the book but I felt like, in the end, it would be wrong not to include it. I think that if people eventually found out I had served in that capacity, they might felt like I was trying to not disclose something. But yeah, I have some ambiguous feelings about it. In the end, what I was asked to actually do was very limited: I was just asked to put a value on these plants. But as I wrote in my letter to the judge, that value in monetary terms is such an arbitrary thing. The price of those plants has declined precipitously since I wrote that, and it had already gone down a lot since the person who sold them stole them. How interesting, though, that the court of law — at least in the United States — in order to assess the damage done to the state, it had to be valued in monetary terms.
I really liked the inclusion of the story. It’s interesting for a researcher of illicit and illegal trade to all of a sudden be dragged into the concrete legal system, and have it, you know, ask something of you.
Sometimes academics are hard on ourselves in that we think we put in all this work and do all this writing and no one actually reads it. And that’s not true. People do read your work when you publish it and you should think about who those people might be. They might be district attorneys for the state of California. People will use your work, and you should think from the outset about what the social implications of that might be. It was a big lesson for me.
At the end of the book, you write that your experiences in the cactus and succulent community have left you with hope that meaningful change is possible “not through the repressions of desire but through its celebration.” After spending so much time among people that some might call poachers, what makes you optimistic?
We have so many examples from other illicit economies where prohibition doesn’t work. I am concerned by a tendency to move in that direction. Given that we’re talking about plants — you know, as far as we know, this conversation could be different in 50 years — but we’re not having to really think about the welfare issues of, say, illegal trade in animals. There are pragmatic solutions to these problems. This material could get out into the world so that people who want these plants can get it in a way that doesn’t harm wild-growing species.
There’s still a ways to go in working through regulatory conventions to support those efforts. And importantly, in doing so, supporting the people who should have the most support, which I would argue are the communities in places in the world that have lived with these plants the longest.
I see hopeful promise in this, and I saw a whole lot of love. I really did. I saw a lot of love between people and plants, and what that can do for people in moving into developing more careful relations with plants and other species. I don’t have a large collection of cacti and succulents, but I do have some, and I have like a cactus right now that’s in flower. Do you want to see it?
This is where I think it’s fun, to think about what plants can teach us—
Oh, it’s gorgeous!
This is a Mammillaria laui. Named for Alfred Lau, who I write about in one of the chapters of the book — a German who lived in Mexico, who has a lot of different species named after him. This is Mammillaria laui, subspecies subducta. It’s got this gorgeous crown of pink flowers.
I love having these plants. Specifically, I’ve started a small collection of plants that are associated with particular people that I wrote about, or that I thought about. Bringing some of that social history to our plants, I think, is a really nice thing that people can do. Learn about where our plants come from and the histories of how they got to where we are.
That’s kind of what set me off on this whole journey, anyway. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for thinking thoughtfully about the place of these plants in the world and how they travel and maybe, hopefully, that can help move us towards a more ethical kind of relation.
Are you worried now that once you collect all of the plants that are connected to your book, you’ll throw your whole collection out?
I don’t think I have a strong collector tendency, per se. I have been accused of being a low-key hoarder before. I’m excited to think about how I’m going to slowly develop a collection over time. Yeah, but your reference — the worst thing that can happen to a collector is completing a collection. Freud wrote about this in the context of completing his collection of statues and dying days later. This one collector who I went to see, I thought I was going to see a giant greenhouse of cacti, but I found a bunch of Mexican chili plants. Because he’d just tossed [the cacti collection] off, he was done with it. I don’t see myself going down that road but one never knows.
For someone reading this interview who might be interested in collecting, where would you say to start?
We need to get over this idea that cacti and succulent plants are great house plants because they don’t require any care. It’s not true. Everyone I know who’s had a succulent has killed it very quickly.
I killed mine.
Yeah, if you just throw a succulent on, like, a north-facing windowsill, it’s not going to do well, especially if you ignore it.
Also, get over the idea that there are natural people in the world with a green thumb — I think that is also nonsense. We just need to spend time learning about what these plants need. One of the ways you can do that is by paying attention to them.
In terms of obtaining material — you know, so much plant material can also just be found for free, gifted from friends or colleagues or the community. A lot of collector clubs, like, say, the Cactus and Succulent Society of America here in the U.S., I believe may even send you free seeds of cacti, and stuff like that.
The thing that I want to start doing is trying to grow cacti from seed. They’re slow-growing plants but I think it’d be really fun to actually watch that process unfold. And it’s quite easy to obtain seeds for a lot of these plants. Just, you know, be careful where you’re buying stuff from. Reputable nurseries are a good source. But be wary of buying from unknown people on the internet. That might be where people start to get into trouble.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to let me know about your book or your experience writing it before I let you go?
I’m not too prescriptive at the end of the book about what I think the answer is. Some people may find that frustrating, like, “Oh, but you didn’t tell us like what should we do” or “What’s the right response?” One of the reasons for that was I just wanted to let people develop some of their own thoughts about this. But also it’s because the work isn’t done.
I’m developing some work right now dealing with illegal succulent trade in South Africa with some colleagues, both in South Korea but also in South Africa. I’m doing a new project on illicit Venus flytrap harvesting and the carnivorous plant trade. I’m trying to continue the process of thinking and learning with plants. But the work continues.