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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ginseng Poaching

Air Date: Week of

The southern U.S. is prime ginseng territory. But, the medicinal herb has become so valuable that poachers are picking it out of existence. Leda Hartman reports on how federal officials are trying to protect ginseng on public land.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ginseng is one of the most popular medicinal herbs. It's said to prevent disorders ranging from diabetes and cancer to sexual dysfunction. Acres of ginseng once carpeted the forests of the eastern United States until massive exports to Asia began in the 1800's. Today, the herb is exceedingly scarce in the wild. Most of what's left is found in the southern Appalachian Mountains where some collectors resort to poaching ginseng from protected public lands. Fall is the traditional time to harvest wild ginseng and the time when the ginseng police go on alert. Leda Hartman has our story.

(Ambient sounds in a store)

HARTMAN: Ginseng is easy to come by if you're a consumer. Walk into any health food store or drug store and there it is on the shelf.

QUINN: I've got a blend of four ginsengs here. We've got red ginseng. We carry, you know, the Chinese Panax ginseng, American ginseng, Siberian ginseng...

HARTMAN: Angie Quinn is the nutrition department manager at a natural food store in Carrboro, North Carolina. She says ginseng is a pretty popular herb.

QUINN: It's definitely in the top ten. It's one of those superstars that the media has hyped up to the degree that there's a lot of awareness out there about it.

HARTMAN: Much of the ginseng consumed in the United States is cultivated on farms or in people's back yards. But the ginseng reputed to be the most potent, the kind that brings top dollar on the international market, grows in the wild. The eastern United States is one of the few places left in the world where you can still find wild ginseng, and that's only in protected areas like the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

(Breezes and flowing water)

HARTMAN: One part of the forest, just southwest of Asheville, is so rife with herbs it's a veritable pharmacy. This cove is protected from the elements. A stream runs through here, providing moisture. And the rich, dark soil hosts medicinal plants that have been used for generations by both Native Americans and white settlers. There's black cohosh, blood root, sarsparilla, and the time-honored herb legendary for boosting strength, stamina, and even virility.

KAUFFMANN: See there? That is American ginseng, Panax Quincafolius.

HARTMAN: That's Gary Kauffmann, a botanist who monitors plant life throughout much of North Carolina's national forest lands. The ginseng plant he points to looks pretty unassuming, five leaves radiating from a stem about a foot tall. But its root, which takes at least five years to mature, can fetch anywhere from $300 to $600 per pound. It's especially in demand in Asia, where there's practically no wild ginseng left. And that's why Kauffmann finds signs of possible poaching nearby.


KAUFFMANN: There's been something dug here. They've put some roots back. Everything's been scuffed up. The soil is a little bit looser.

HARTMAN: It is legal to harvest ginseng from most national forest lands, but only in the fall, after the seeds to produce new plants have fallen to the ground. It's never legal, however, to take ginseng from national park lands, such as the nearby Smokey Mountains National Park. Nevertheless, poaching occurs on both types of public lands. And that, says Kauffmann, is a big reason ginseng has become so scarce, even where it's supposed to be protected. A couple of centuries ago, things were quite different.

KAUFFMANN: In Kentucky, Daniel Boone, one year he collected between seven and fourteen tons. In fact, one year I guess he lost a whole boatload of ginseng. He just went back and got another. Right now, you know, throughout the 1990's in North Carolina, the whole harvest was between 9,000 to 10,000 pounds. In the last two years it's dropped down to between 6,000 to 7,000 pounds.

HARTMAN: It took two big busts in 1993 to alert park and forest officials to the seriousness of the poaching problem, which has devastated the wild ginseng population. The crime took place in one of the most remote sections of the Smokey Mountains National Park. The poachers stole about 8,000 ginseng plants. They took everything, down to the seeds and the young plants, making regeneration impossible. John Garrison, a U.S. park ranger with the Blue Ridge Parkway, says the incident revealed a much larger problem.

GARRISON: And that's when we began to discover that, while ginseng may be the most widely-known plant in this area, that it's being taken for the herbal medicine market, that there were other markets and many, many other plants that were being taken.

HARTMAN: That includes everything from common ferns to rare Appalachian orchids. But by far, ginseng is the most lucrative plant to steal.. And that means that the traditional way of collecting it, part of the mountain culture, has gone by the wayside.

GARRISON: For many years, what I saw here growing up in these mountains was that folks that were harvesting plants were local people. Usually went out as families, as a family outing, or would harvest it while they were out scouting for the upcoming hunting seasons. And it was taken merely as an incidental way of making a little cash. Christmas money is what is was always called.

HARTMAN: These days, Garrison says, illegal ginseng collection has become an industry. And poachers, he says, have become increasingly sophisticated. Here is one example.

GARRISON: These people had parked along the parkway in a legal area, had set up all the appearances of a picnic, blanket, basket, the works. And went off into the woods. But this ranger just had a feeling, and he then began to track them.

HARTMAN: And he caught them red-handed, digging up ginseng roots and stuffing them in a bag. Still, poaching hasn't always been easy to prosecute, especially when an arrest is made after the fact. Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, says a way was needed to positively identify the ginseng that comes from protected public lands.

CORBIN: We decided we needed something that was going to work, that we could deter this with as well as get greater convictions. Because in court they were getting beat in court on a regular basis.

HARTMAN: So a few years ago, Corbin, Garrison, and others devised a marking system for vulnerable plants. One that's permanent, but harmless. At first, they tagged the plants with a tiny stainless steel ribbon encoded with microscopic Navajo pictographs, which indicated where the plants were from. Now they use two other methods. One is a neon orange dye that is absorbed directly into the root of a plant and can't be scrubbed off. The other is an undetectable plastic laminate containing microscopic bits of ground up plastic, each with a special color-coded sequence.


HARTMAN: Along the trail on national park land north of Asheville, John Garrison sprays adhesive and then dusts the ground-up plastic on a stand of galax leaves, which are used as filler in floral arrangements.

GARRISON: Very adaptable, you can see, in the field. It's a very fine texture, like fine sand. There's no way in the world that we can not now identify this particular leaf as coming from the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park Service.

HARTMAN: And you can't see a thing.

GARRISON: No, you can't tell it's there.

HARTMAN: Garrison says federal officials can't mark every single plant that's vulnerable to poaching. But they have marked enough plants to be able to intercept many of the ones that are stolen. Although a black market for ginseng, the most lucrative plant, does exist, all ginseng that ends up on the commercial market must be inspected before it leaves the state. But above all, says John Garrison, the marking system serves as a deterrent.

GARRISON: If people know they are digging on areas that are closed to plant harvest, there is a good chance that they will dig up and take with them a plant that can be 100 percent identified as coming from a protected area. And if you're taking them illegally, beware. We will prosecute you for this.

HARTMAN: And convictions will bring not just fines but also jail time. North Carolina's marking program has been adopted on other federal lands and the Canadian province of Ontario. Meanwhile, the Park Service and the Forest Service hope to determine exactly how much legal harvesting the embattled ginseng population can stand. They're also trying to pinpoint public lands that are best suited for replanting efforts. Both botanists and rangers say if ginseng poaching isn't curbed, the wild herb, for so long a part of traditional medicine, may some day become extinct. For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman in Asheville, North Carolina.



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