Stealing a certain type of plant could result in fines and potential jail time, and even a felony conviction in North Carolina.
Every summer, poachers head into the woods looking for ginseng in the North Carolina mountains.
But what makes the rare plant so valuable? It is not the plant, but instead, it’s roots that have led people into the woods looking for wild ginseng.
North Carolina Wildlife officers say poachers carry very little, sometimes spending days in the woods. They say a person can get $25 per root or between $500 and $800 for a pound of wild ginseng.
Due to the demand in the commercial market and its very specialized growing environment, the plant is approaching endangered status in some areas.
“Just quick money. Being able to take this and sell it for quick cash,” said NC Wildlife’s Dustin Ethridge. “That’s the only reason I can think of.”
But going onto state or federal lands in North Carolina and poaching ginseng is a felony if you’re caught and convicted.
Wildlife officers say they’ve spotted cars abandoned in wilderness areas like the South Mountain Game Lands. Several photos from across the mountains show other large seizures in the state where hundreds of plants were taken.
“It is free money, in a way, where they don’t have to go to a job every day and they can just go out whenever it’s convenient for them and dig ginseng and make money -- and a lot of times cash -- which they’re not going to pay taxes on,” said NC Wildlife’s Phillip Fulmer.
North of Asheville, Robert Eidus grows and sells ginseng at the Eagle Feather Organic Farm. He showed Channel 9 the rows of baby plants coming up this spring and explained why the ginseng is so valuable.
“I take it because it’s the best herb on the planet to help human beings,” Eidus said.
Ginseng is popular in Asia, where it is often put in tea and believed to have health benefits. Eidus says 90% of the wild ginseng harvested in North Carolina ends up in China, and 90% of those plants were stolen, leaving fewer plants in the state.
“We believe there should be an export ban on ginseng to let the plant come back,” Eidus said.
Wildlife officers said the plants can be taken from private land, but only between the months of September and December and only with the landowner’s permission. There have been federal cases in North Carolina where repeat offenders have been sent to prison for stealing the plants.
The officers’ hope is for the poaching to stop and for people to understand it is very challenging to find wild ginseng.
“I imagine if you go and get a regular job, you’re going to make more money and work less with a regular job,” Ethridge said.
Wildlife officers said a person caught stealing a plant can also be charged with a misdemeanor, but repeat offenders will face a felony charge.
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