RALEIGH N.C. (Reuters) - Being the rare kind of plant that eats living things, the Venus flytrap tends to be thought of as an aggressor, its spiked leaves trapping insects with a murderous snap before devouring them.
But in the plant’s only natural home – a roughly 70-mile (113-km) radius centered on the North Carolina coast – it is increasingly seen as a victim.
Already at risk from coastal development, the estimated 35,000 remaining wild plants are now threatened by poaching so severe, that new legislation signed into law on Thursday by Governor Pat McCrory, now makes it a felony punishable by up to 25 months in prison to steal them.
The new laws, passed by both North Carolina chambers in August, were prompted by a heist last year in which more than a thousand plants were stolen from a park in the coastal town of Wilmington.
“There’s only a small area for the Venus flytrap to grow naturally,” said Ted Davis, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill. “If it goes extinct there, it’s gone.”
First discovered by a colonial governor of North Carolina in the 1700s, Dionaea muscipula was singled out by Charles Darwin as one of the world’s most magnificent plants.
The unusual trapping motion of its fleshy leaves makes it a favorite among plant enthusiasts, said Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy, which oversees several preserves where the plant thrives.
But its popularity fuels poachers. While cultivated plants are often sold legally, stolen wild plants show up on roadside stands along the coast and increasingly on the Internet.
“This is one thing we have in this state that is charismatic and is ours,” said Crane. “When someone steals that, they’re stealing our natural heritage.”
Under previous laws, poachers could be forced to pay between $10 and $50 a plant, with no possibility of prison time. The new law imposes no limits on fines.
It puts the Venus flytrap on the same legal footing in North Carolina as ginseng, which grows in the mountains in the western part of the state. Sought after for its medicinal properties, those plants can fetch prices of up to $200 a lb.
In recent years, federal authorities had started hitting poachers with harsher penalties to deter thefts from the national parks where they grow.
In late August, one repeat offender was sentenced to five and a half months in prison for stealing nearly 300 plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Another man, sentenced earlier last month, will serve 80 days and pay a $1,000 fine.
Steve Kloster, acting chief ranger at the park, said that harsher penalties are crucial to preserving the state’s rare plants.
“We are hopeful that this conviction will serve as a deterrent to others considering illegally taking this special resource,” Kloster said.
Reporting by Marti Maguire; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Shumaker