Ginseng Thieves Strike the Midwest

  • Wild ginseng is protected in the Great Lakes states, but poachers illegally dig up the herb because of high prices.

Conservation officers are starting to notice a demand for a threatened native plant. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi Goetz reports on how wild ginseng might be smuggled out of the nation:


Conservation officers are starting to notice a demand for a threatened native plant. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi Goetz reports on how wild ginseng might be smuggled out of
the nation:

While other states have been hit by ginseng smugglers, this is something new in Michigan,
something they’ve never paid much attention to… until now.

Sergeant Ron Kimmerley and Officer Andy Bauer of the State Department of Natural Resources
are deep into the woods.

They’re scouting around Warren Dunes State Park next to Lake Michigan.

They spot what they’re looking for.

What they’ve found are wild ginseng plants, a threatened species that’s protected under Michigan

What they’re also looking for are homemade flags marking the site and signs of digging.

Officer Bauer says they first noticed the flags last summer.

“There were felt flags stuck into the ground, and the rangers had seen those and thought it was
from an orienteering class. Later, we saw the flags were laid down and there were holes where
things had been harvested.”

Until then, Bauer says ginseng poaching had gone largely unnoticed.

More than 30 arrests were made last year and the scenario was often the same: A group would
act as a family of picnickers while one or two people slipped away to dig up ginseng.

Bauer says it was clear that most knew they were breaking the law.

“Some had plastic bags. Others, it was concealed much like narcotics would be, concealed under
their clothes. One woman, we found in the woman’s purse where the bottom was removed, and
there were at least 20 roots.”

Another similarity in the cases was that all those caught were of Asian descent.

Though separate instances, many of them had similar Chicago street addresses.

One man even came from Korea. He came on a 10-day tourist visa, apparently just to harvest

The officers suspect most of the wild ginseng was being taken back to Chicago to sell there or for
export to Asia.

Paul Hsu raises ginseng legally in Wisconsin. He agrees with the conservation officers that the
ginseng is being smuggled to Chicago or out of the country.

“They could have dug it and consumed there. But I don’t think that’s their intention. They dig it,
take it back to Chicago, sell it. They know the value of it.”

Hsu says ginseng roots have been valued in Asian culture for almost 3,000 years for its medicinal

“The Chinese believe it’s a cure-all…in the old-time, we don’t have antibiotics. It’s more like a
shot-gun approach. Can relieve stress, give you more stamina. To enhance the function of your
body, immune system…whatever.

Wild ginseng is considered more potent than cultivated ginseng, the kind Hsu grows.

And it’s lucrative. A pound a wild ginseng can fetch upwards of $350.

The fines in most Midwest states are fairly high. The penalties in Michigan range up to $5,000
for a first offense and could include jail time.

The poachers are aware of this and usually carry wads of cash. Officers say they suspect it’s
considered the price of doing business.

They’re taking the risk because ginseng is becoming increasingly scarce in Asia.
Environmentalists say that’s what’s behind the high demand and illegal harvesting of American
wild ginseng.

“It’s where there’s greater concentrations that have not yet been harvested.”

Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor at the Michigan Environmental Council.

“It’s more economical for harvesters to exploit here in Michigan and around the Great Lakes.”

Poaching has been going on in southern states for many years because of legendary stock around
the Appalachians.

More recently, poachers are targeting the Midwest because of rich soil. And ginseng has become
so rare everywhere else.

At Warren Dunes State Park, Sergeant Ron Kimmerley is organizing group patrols to try to catch

There’s even plans to place plain-clothes officers as picnickers.

But he admits, it might not be enough.

“We’ve got a lot of poachers here, but what’s happening where we can’t be?”

So far, no one has been caught in Michigan this year. But Sergeant Kimmerley says the ginseng
harvest season is just beginning.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Kaomi Goetz.

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