'Digging 'sang' is lucrative, criminal, tough to halt
By Megan Cummings
Wild ginseng is an elusive plant, but somehow poachers find it. It takes many years for its expansive root system, shiny leaflet-prongs and bright crimson berries to grow in the damp, dark recesses of the forest understory.
Poaching ginseng is very lucrative: one pound of dried wild ginseng is valued at more than $450 on the black market, according to Jim Corbin, a North Carolina biologist who has studied ginseng poaching extensively .
Ginseng has been widely used as a medicinal supplement in Asia for thousands of years,though it has not achieved wide use in the United States.
Reduced funding for wild ginseng monitoring programs and changes in park rangers’ natural resource protection strategies has made it even more difficult for employees of the National Park Service (NPS) to protect the plant's populations against poachers.
Wild ginseng’s situation in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is especially precarious because poachers who "dig 'sang," or steal ginseng, have contributed greatly to the decline of the park's wild ginseng populations sine the 1970s.
“Poaching is the main factor [as to] why we are seeing fewer and younger ginseng [in Shenandoah National Park],” said Rolf Gubler, a biologist at SNP.
“We really have no idea how extensive [ginseng poaching] is except to say it's much larger than the number of people we catch doing it,” George Durkee of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police said.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and NPS completed the most recent study of the SNP’s wild ginseng populations between 1996 and 2003, and their subsequent report revealed the widespread poaching and black market trade of the plant.
Botanist Wendy Cass oversees the ginseng monitoring programs at SNP, but she said decreased funding has led to reductions in the programs’ activities.
“We used to have a field team every year [to monitor ginseng], but now we have one every other year,” she said. Ginseng monitoring programs compete with many other NPS programs across the country for private research grants from the Natural Resources Preservation Program, she said.
Although using ginseng for medicinal purposes is growing more popular in the United States, the plant’s uses and trade are largely unknown to the general public, Corbin said. North American ginseng was discovered in 1716 and became a major export shortly thereafter.
“Even though [ginseng] has been a cure-all for years, originally people laughed at it because it was used as an aphrodisiac in China,” he said.
Wild ginseng is the most sought-after variety of American ginseng because it contains 22 ginsenosides, or active ingredients, Jack Kieffer of the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation said. The plant is an adaptogen because it regulates body functions and reduces stress, he said.
However, scientific and medical studies in the United States have not yet proven if ginseng is an effective or helpful herbal supplement, according to information on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site. There have only been a handful of ginseng studies, and many of the completed studies have had flaws in design and reporting, the NIH reports.
Since ginseng is sold by weight, the larger and older the ginseng root, the more valuable it is on the market. Wild ginseng is distinguishable from cultivated ginseng by its dark tan color, concentric growth rings and long, forked shape.
“Wild ginseng, or black ginseng, is to the eye, discernible from any ginseng that is cultivated,” Claire Comer, a SNP media representative, said.
The plant grows best in calcium-rich soil, and in the cool, moist and shady sloped forest understory. It takes at least two years for a ginseng plant to germinate, and at least five years for the plant to flower and grow its root system. Plants should not be harvested until they have matured for four years, and have three prong-leaflets and many bright red berries. These mature plants have the greatest number of seeds and contribute the most to the plant population's growth rate.
But because the larger and older roots are most valuable, most poachers will steal the three- or four- pronged plants, thereby reducing seed dispersal, Corbin said.
During the 1996-2003 SNP study, there were 15 documented cases of ginseng poaching in the park in which someone was caught. Eight of these cases were clearly documented, and of these eight, poachers stole a total of 430 roots.
Results from the study indicated that marking ginseng plants was the most effective way to prevent poaching, given the limitations of law enforcement natural resource monitoring.
Since 2004, employees at SNP have marked ginseng plant roots with a non-toxic dye. Once the roots absorb the dye, they become unsuitable for sale by reputable dealers. When park rangers seize poached ginseng, they can analyze the dye’s characteristics to determine the plant’s origin.
If rangers determine that the poached ginseng originated in SNP, they notify the park’s vegetation monitoring team so the roots can be replanted, Cass said. Between 1999 and 2003, Cass and her team replanted 258 confiscated roots at 16 different park sites. However, the replanted roots’ overall survival rate averaged only 31 percent, she said.
Since rehabilitation efforts have been only marginally successful at increasing wild ginseng populations, there needs to be greater emphasis on deterring poachers from seizing the plants in the first place, Cass said. However, reductions in law enforcement natural resource monitoring has emboldened poachers, she said.
“There are fewer well-rounded rangers,” Cass said. “They are more like police officers who help people in the front country rather than in the back country [where ginseng grows].”
Bill Wade, a former superintendent of SNP and the current chair of the Executive Council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, voiced similar concerns.
“When you take away law enforcement positions in the park and cut seasonal and permanent ranger [positions], there are fewer patrols on the back country,” Wade said. Criminals are likely to take more chances when there is a perceived reduction in crime patrols, he added.
“Cut backs in rangers are definitely affecting our ability to patrol and enforce regulations in all parks,” Durkee said. “What usually happens is when we're short-staffed, we can only do the basics: patrol the main roads, respond to medicals, searches et cetera. [Poaching monitoring] usually requires dedicating a ranger or two to work undercover and keep watch on known trouble areas. That means taking that ranger off his regular duties.”
Corbin said that since most experienced poachers could adapt to rangers’ monitoring schedules, they could successfully steal the most valuable, older wild ginseng.
Poachers also target wild or cultivated ginseng grown on private property. Kentucky resident Syl Yunker spread wild ginseng seeds on six of his 42 acres more than 10 years ago, and in three hours, poachers stole 90 percent of his marketable ginseng plants.
“You can call it what it is- a theft,” he said. “Loss is a probability you live with. I didn’t suffer from shock too long.”
Harvesting ginseng on private land in Virginia is legal, but can only occur between Aug. 15 and Dec. 31. The timing of this collection period is designed to restrict harvesting until plant seeds have ripened and dispersed.
SNP officials worry that the lack of funding for protection and study of the park’s wild ginseng will only further threaten the species’ populations in Virginia. The plant’s already obscure status has made cause for its preservation difficult to promote to the public.
“You show a picture of a ginseng plant and it doesn’t garner much emotional support,” Comer said.
“Not a lot is spoken about the ginseng [black] market,” Corbin said. “Not a lot is known, and a lot of poaching slips through the system.”
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