High-Tech Methods Used to Deter Ginseng Poaching

Ginseng is in high demand, selling online for upward of $1,000 a pound. Rangers fighting poachers in places like Mammoth Cave National Park use high-tech sensors and dyes to discourage them. Private landowners also are victims of clandestine harvesting. Joe Corcoran of member station WKYU reports.

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Wild ginseng is the highly valued root crop that's popular in Asia and increasingly popular in the U.S. It's used in everything from tea to toothpaste. As Joe Corcoran, of member station WKYU in Bowling Green, Kentucky, reports, federal park rangers are battling wild ginseng poachers with high-tech methods.

JOE CORCORAN reporting:

Only a little bigger than a small carrot, the ginseng root's been prized in Asia for centuries. It's touted as an aphrodisiac and an energy booster. The root's said to resemble human or animal shapes. The word ginseng itself translates to man-root. Ginseng's been harvested from New York to Wisconsin and all over the Southeast since colonial times. Its been dug in Kentucky since Daniel Boone came through the Cumberland Gap in the 1700's and started digging it and exporting it to Asia himself. While its medicinal value is debated today, its popularity isn't.

Kentucky leads the nation in the amount of ginseng dug from the ground. Kentucky's crop is worth about eight million dollars a year, but it's estimated as much as half of that is harvested illegally by poachers who dig up the entire plant, including its berries.

LARRY JOHNSON (Ranger, Mammoth Cave National Park): So all of what we're seeing right here is all ginseng. This is ginseng here, this is ginseng here.

CORCORAN: Here is central Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, Ranger Larry Johnson can easily spot ginseng. It's yellow, sharply pointed leaves grow from six inches to two feet tall underneath the park's virgin oak trees. Here, like at dozens of other national parks in the East and the South, ginseng is getting scarce and is a protected species, in part because it is so easy to spot by poachers. Johnson says poachers have damaged the crop so severely on private lands that they've turn to public lands to hunt for it.

Ranger JOHNSON: We just apprehended two guys ginsenging in the park. And during the interview of them, they were cooperative with us. We asked them, why don't you ginseng up where you live? And the guy's quote was "it's done been took".

CORCORAN: Larry Faith was one of those two men arrested on poaching charges.

LARRY FAITH (Ginseng Poacher): Well, yeah, that's what they called it, yeah.

CORCORAN: He was fined $1,500 and sentenced to two years probation after being caught, but despite his run in with the law he is undeterred. In the lightly regulated world of ginseng, he's now a licensed dealer.

Mr. FAITH: The diggers say one thing and the dealers say another, and then people like the park rangers say another thing. So you hear different angles, and I've kind of been on all three ends of it, unfortunately, you know.

CORCORAN: Faith pays diggers up to four hundred dollars a pound for ginseng and then sells it to overseas brokers where it can fetch up to a thousand dollars a pound. Larry Faith says dealers have to trust that the ginseng brought to them was dug legally on private land. On public land, at Mammoth Cave and at national parks in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere, park rangers like Larry Johnson are moving away from their hit or miss patrols, and are instead using technology and science to catch poachers digging up ginseng plants.

Ranger JOHNSON: We have electronic sensors, we have cameras and other devices. We've marked hundreds of Ginseng roots this year with a detectable dye. The other type of dye that we use you can't see with the naked eye. You need a X-ray machine or some other type of machinery to see the dye that is absorbed into the roots.

CORCORAN: Johnson says he doesn't expect to halt Ginseng poaching all together, rather just to slow it down so that the valuable wild Ginseng plants can survive for future generations. For NPR News, I'm Joe Corcoran in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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