Is It Rational to Poach Venus Fly Traps?

I have a confession to make… I am a podcast addict. My absolute favorite is called Criminal, and each episode focuses on a different story of crime. As a criminologist who teaches theories of crime, one episode that really stands out to me. It focuses on a Venus flytrap crime ring.

Here’s some background. Venus flytraps start the size of a fingernail and grow to around 4 or 5 inches tall. They only grow in the wild in a 90-square-mile area near Wilmington, North Carolina, and importantly, there is a large black market for them.

I try to incorporate podcasts into my classes whenever possible because I think that they offer a unique and interesting medium to share information. With this particular podcast, I immediately thought of rational choice theory.

Rational choice theory has its roots in the Classical school of criminology, which focuses on the fact that criminals are rational actors. They weigh the pro’s and con’s of what they do, and in order to get them to stop, you have to make the penalties outweigh the benefits. It focuses on the idea that punishment needs to be swift, certain, and severe in order to tip the scale for a criminal to desist. This theory fits perfectly with the theft of 10s of thousands of Venus flytraps in North Carolina each year.

The podcast says that thieves have been stealing the plants from the Green Swamp in North Carolina because they can be sold for 10 to 25 cents per plant. They can snatch up to 1,000 per trip into the swamp so they can earn a couple hundred dollars by selling them on the black market. There has been a significant growth in the market for Venus flytraps in the United States in the last five years. Wildlife Resources officials also point out that it doesn’t take large equipment to steal the plants. All you need is a bag, which they have seen range from a pillowcase to a backpack, and a shovel, which could be a garden spade to a flattened piece of metal. The short story is that there is money in Venus flytraps.

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Jackeline Perez Rivera

The risks to stealing flytraps are minimal. There aren’t many federal and state protections, and it is unlikely that poachers will be caught. When caught, there are minimal fines. Also, it isn’t illegal to buy flytraps. It’s only illegal to dig them up so farms can buy the plants, even if there is a possibility of poaching.

Rational choice theory contends that crime can be stopped if you make the risks outweigh the benefits. In this case, conservation officers believe that there needs to be a state-level effort to make poaching a felony. On the other hand, we could try to stop the market so there won’t be buyers for the poached plants. Increase the costs or decrease the benefits. Rational choice theory via Venus flytraps.

About Dr. Andrea Krieg

This blog was written when Dr. Krieg was serving as Assistant Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois.

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