Rangers rooting out ginseng poachers

Its bright-red berries make American ginseng easy to spot in the understory of Virginia’s deciduous forests in the fall.Courtesy USFWS
Its bright-red berries make American ginseng easy to spot in the understory of Virginia’s deciduous forests in the fall.

Richard Parsons lives in Old Hollow at the head of a trail into the Shenandoah National Park. Although it’s an isolated trail, it’s not uncommon for him to see hikers cross his property to get to it. But last week he saw a group that raised his suspicions.

“They were dressed in loose clothing like you’d wear for gardening,” he said, the type of attire park rangers had told him that might signal a ginseng poaching operation. Parsons called the park communications center, and park rangers later caught the group with dozens of ginseng roots in their backpacks.

Pam Owen looks into the history, biology and likely endangerment of American ginseng in this week’s “Wild Ideas” nature column.

Ginseng is a rare native plant sought after in some cultures for its supposed medicinal value, and worth hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars a pound. Depending on the age and variety, a single ginseng root could be worth than a pound of another variety alone, said Stuart Curtain, the park’s North District ranger and law enforcement supervisor, in a recent email. Poaching ginseng in the park is a federal crime, he said, and park authorities are cracking down.

“This year alone, we have cited 28 people for poaching ginseng,” Curtain said. “It’s an ongoing problem. Those cited for taking ginseng must appear in federal court and the fines and ordered restitution for poaching can run into the thousands of dollars.”

Ginseng has been traded in North America for centuries. In the early 1700s, Canadian colonists were shipping native ginseng to China. While the ginseng trade has been long and lucrative, the current boom and correspondingly escalating prices have increased pressure on wild populations of the plant. In recent decades, ginseng has become popular as a dietary supplement and as an ingredient in other products.

Wild ginseng used to be plentiful in the southeastern United States, but with increased poaching, it could quickly disappear. Ginseng collecting used to be allowed in state parks and national forests, but overharvesting forced state and federal agencies to make ginseng collecting illegal.

“There is very little area where it’s left,” said Curtin. “Folks who may have collected it 10 years ago may have gone on private property or the national forest, but those areas are all empty of ginseng. SNP is one of the few areas where you can still find wild ginseng, which is why we are seeing the increase in poaching.”

He warned that if ginseng poaching keeps going at the present rate, “it could get to the point where it is nonrecoverable.” That’s because poachers are after the ginseng root, not the leaves or fruit, Curtin said, adding: “If you take an apple, you leave the tree to live and reproduce, but when someone takes a ginseng root, they take the entire plant. It’s like digging up a tree.”

(See Pam Owen’s “Wild Ideas” column on page B1 for details about native ginseng’s future.)

Ginseng takes about five years to mature enough to reproduce. Some of the roots poachers dig up can be more than 30 years old. Although the park replants the captured roots — often marking them to show that they came from the park — only about 50 percent of them survive.

Poaching can be big business

The ginseng root’s resemblance to the human body has given it special significance in some cultures.Drginseng via Wikimedia
The ginseng root’s resemblance to the human body has given it special significance in some cultures.

“Sometimes the poachers are individuals who want the ginseng for personal uses,” said Curtain. But the rangers have also come on groups of poachers who seem to be making the practice their livelihood. “They go miles into the woods to find the plants. They might have 20-inch-long screw drivers or heavy knives to cut the roots from the ground.” He said these individuals go to great lengths to camouflage what they are doing, often even changing clothes in the woods and getting picked up and dropped off in different locations.

According to Parsons, the more organized poachers often have walkie-talkies to communicate with each other and lookouts to alert the others of the presence of rangers. The groups might employ a “mule,” someone to carry the stash of ginseng root out of the park once the coast is clear. “They make every effort to conceal their identity and what they’re doing,” said Curtin, “so it’s very clear that a lot of these folks know they are breaking the law and are trying to pull one over on us.”

To try to combat illegal activity of all kinds in the park, authorities have made a concerted effort over the years to get to know the owners of properties that border the park. “We usually go door to door to try and meet our park neighbors, introduce ourselves and give them a business card,” said Curtin. “We ask that if they ever see anything that looks out of sorts to give us a call. It’s also a chance for us to know them and let them know we are here if they need our help. It’s a win-win.”

So the next time you’re in Shenandoah National Park and you see people off the trail digging in the dirt, their activity may not be benign. For more information and to report suspicious activity, call the park’s dispatch communications center, open 24/7, at 540-999-3422.

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