The Transylvania Times -

Poaching Threatens Rare Plants And Animals


December 18, 2017

Courtesy Photo

The eastern bog turtle is also at risk from habitat loss and poaching. (Photos courtesy Gary Peeples)

We entered Pisgah National Forest on U.S. 276 in Pisgah Forest, just like thousands of people do every year. I was travelling with a botanist and we had a very specific destination in mind. After a couple of miles, she turned the pickup truck onto a gravel road, then a bit further along, pulled to the side of the road.

Getting out and looking around, the spot looked like so many other spots across Pisgah National Forest. You probably couldn't find a more non-descript spot on the forest. But the botanist led on, and we hiked straight into the forest, and after a while, something did change.

If you looked carefully, you could see a small plant rising a few inches over the leaf-covered forest floor. And a couple of feet away, another one. Then another a few feet further. The plants were simple, but elegant – a short green stem, whorl of five leaves, then a flower rising above the whorl.

The plant was the small-whorled pogonia. An orchid found in 10 North Carolina counties, and on the federal threatened and endangered species list since 1982. Across North America, it's found in 18 states and one Canadian province. Despite the wide range, it isn't common anywhere it's found, often with populations of less than 20 plants.

Like many imperiled species, this rare orchid suffers from habitat loss, but there is also a more nefarious threat at work.

Generally, no one intends to degrade or eliminate the habitat of a rare plant or animal – it happens incidental to other activities; but poaching flows purely from an intent focused on a particular plant or animal.

In fact, Transylvania County is home to a handful of rare plants and animals that face a poaching threat. The mountain purple pitcher plant and federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant are both carnivorous plants found in southern Appalachian bogs. The bog turtle, North America's smallest bog turtle, and also protected by the Endangered Species Act, is another bog species that suffers from poaching. Transylvania County is home to one of two lichens on the threatened and endangered species list, the rock gnome lichen, found on high, rocky outcrops and also occasionally on streamside boulders. Believe it or not, there has been at least one incident of poaching that species.

And even the eastern hellbender, currently being considered for Endangered Species Act protection, occasionally suffers poaching.

Courtesy Photo

The small whorled pogonia, only found in 10 North Carolina counties, remains at risk for poaching.

Poaching of rare species is often driven by someone's desire to own something rare, regardless of legality – in fact the rarer the species, often the higher the demand. But the future of these plants and animals depends on their well being in the wild. Sure, there are lots of rare plants and animals in captivity, but when the Atlanta Botanical Garden has pitcher plants or the Knoxville Zoo has bog turtles, they're used for public education and very carefully managed breeding to not only conserve the plants and animals, but also their genetic diversity. When a poached plant or animal sits in a corner of someone's living room, it's stripped of its context in the wild and exists outside of efforts to conserve it. It becomes nothing more than an object to be possessed.

Anyone witness to a wildlife violation like poaching can call the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's wildlife violations reporting number at 1-800-662-7137.

(Peeples is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)


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