venus flytrapEarlier this month four men were arrested for poaching on the Holly Shelter Game Land preserve in North Carolina. Their arrest made national headlines, and history, as they became the first people charged with a felony for stealing Venus flytrap plants (Dionaea muscipula) from the wild.

Yes, Venus flytrap poaching is a thing. Not only that, it threatens the existence of this iconic but endangered carnivorous plant in the wild. The four men arrested this month had 970 Venus flytraps in their possession—almost 3 percent of the entire species’s naturally growing population.

Although Venus flytraps appear for sale in greenhouses around the world, they actually have an extremely limited wild range: about 120 kilometers around Wilmington, N.C.—and, even there, they remain rare. The plants grow only in bogs and many of their habitats have been lost to development over the past century. Flytraps disappeared in other locations after fire-suppression techniques protected properties but allowed brush to thrive, starving the plants of the sunlight they needed to flourish. Today Venus flytraps only survive on a handful of sites, all of which are owned by The Nature Conservancy, the North Carolina government or the U.S. military.

Over the past decades The Nature Conservancy has managed to protect flytraps from development and fire-suppression schemes. Poaching, however, has remained a persistent problem. “We’ve had flytraps poached on our land,” says Debbie Crane, director of communications for The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter, who says thefts of a thousand plants at a time were all too common. The crime, until last December, was considered to be a mere misdemeanor with a maximum $50 fine. “People would get a slap on the hand in court, and they didn’t care,” Crane says. “They came out of court grinning.”

A new law that went into effect on December 1 should help change that. Stealing Venus flytraps is now a felony, punishable by 25 to 39 months in jail—a penalty the four men arrested this month will face if convicted. “What makes poaching so sad and stupid is that the people who are doing it are local folks,” Crane says. “They’re not making much money off of it. They’re selling the bulbs for maybe 25 cents. It’s an incredibly stupid thing that they’re going to wipe out this wonderful thing in nature.”

What makes all of this worse is that flytraps, unlike most other carnivorous plants, grow extremely well in captivity, so wild plants aren’t even necessary to feed the existing market. “Flytraps love cloning,” Crane notes, who says she is kind of obsessed with the plants. “You can create them in a greenhouse very easily, and it’s being done all over the world. They’re being sold legally in a lot of places because they’re cloned.”

The plants are also, she argues, the most charismatic species in North Carolina. “This is our natural heritage,” she says.

Venus flytraps obviously won’t go extinct anytime soon—they’re too popular and too easy to cultivate—but the wild plants can’t survive many more big poaching events like this one. Their loss would not only eliminate one of the most beloved plant species on the planet, it would also be a blow to the North Carolina economy. “We’ve had people from all over the world come here to see flytraps,” Crane says. “If the plants are gone, the tourists are not going to visit.”

To help protect the plants even further, The Nature Conservancy is about to start a new public education campaign while looking for ways to create other economic opportunities for potential poachers. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’ve got this incredibly special, cool thing sitting in their backyard,” she says. “This is a plant that Darwin himself called one of the most amazing plants in the world. We think that we need to educate people about how special they are.”

Photos by Dan Mele courtesy of The Nature Conservancy