NPR

National Parks Look To Lock Out Wild Ginseng Diggers

A harvester holds ginseng roots. Wild ginseng roots can bring big profits overseas, especially in Asia, but it is illegal to poach the root from U.S. national parks. (NPR)

Digging for wild ginseng pays: It sells for thousands of dollars in overseas markets. But it is illegal to take ginseng from national parks, where authorities are working to thwart poachers.

They come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with North Carolina's agriculture department, is out to protect wild ginseng root from the poachers.

Ginseng is short – about shin height and has little red seeds, like tiny cranberries. Corbin, who spots some growing deep in the park, crouches down and digs his finger into the soil near the root, then pulls a spray can and a little jar of thick yellow powder out of his pocket. The powder is Corbin's anti-poaching technology. If someone digs up the root he's marked and tries to sell it, it'll glow under a black light, revealing that it was poached.

Park officials say Corbin's dye has helped convict 41 ginseng poachers in the last four years. One was Billy Joe Hurley. He pleaded guilty to his fourth poaching conviction earlier this fall and is serving five and a half months in federal prison.

Hurley's lawyer, Corey Atkins, is sympathetic to his client and other locals who do the same thing. "They're not out there robbing little old ladies. They're just trying to make a living doing something that they're really good at," Atkins says.

"If you grew up in the area in the South, you knew a lot of people who did it, and it wasn't necessarily seen as criminal," he says.

In fact, traditional diggers aren't the problem. Over the last couple of years, a new kind of digger has arrived on the scene, says Roddy Gabel with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There's even a reality TV show about the medicinal root and those who dig for it.

"This newer craze you see sensationalized on television and stuff with people running out to make quick money digging ginseng — those sort of Johnny-come-lately diggers are not steeped in the tradition of the older ginseng diggers who have these good practices that their father or grandfather or whoever taught them. And that's the concern we have."

Good practices include waiting until fall, when plants have reproduced, and only harvesting plants older than five years old.

But the prize for wild ginseng is too tempting to wait.

"I paid almost up to $225 [per pound for fresh wild ginseng roots]," says Robert Eidus. He's one of 50 registered ginseng dealers in North Carolina.

He's the middle man between diggers and bigger dealers who export the roots to Hong Kong. "I'm selling the ginseng in bulk at $2,000 a pound.

"I'm just cashing in on what the Hong Kong Chinese are doing," he says.

He says those same plants will go for more than $20,000 in Hong Kong.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers show a big jump in exports of wild ginseng between 2012 and 2013. Exports were up nearly 40 percent. Prices were more than $2,000 a kilo.

That's what Corbin is up against, but he says it's worth the effort to protect biodiversity here. "Well, you have to say that any time you remove any organism from a biome, you basically damage that biome, and yeah, I think it's worth it," he says.

Corbin says all he wants is for ginseng to be around for the next two or three generations.

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