Bloom and bust: SA advocate snares international flower thief

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Bloom and bust: SA advocate snares international flower thief

US wildlife agency lauds Aradhana Heeramun for helping to bringing slippery plant trafficker to book

Senior reporter

She is better known for prosecuting dangerous gangsters than flower thieves.

But SA advocate Aradhana Heeramun has reaped a rare honour for her role in prosecuting and extraditing a known international plant trafficker.

Heeramun and a team of SA colleagues swooped on South Korean plant trafficker Byungsu Kim and a co-conspirator for violating SA’s environmental laws.

“She obtained convictions against both subjects and secured suspended jail sentences of six years for each subject,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

“She also secured fines for both defendants in the amount of R5,000,000 (approximately $300,000). A significant portion of those fines will be used for environmental conservation in South Africa. Following those successful cases in South Africa, Heeramun volunteered to continue working on the case and helped the USFWS secure Kim’s extradition to the United States.”

As a result the organisation presented a recognition award to Heeramun this month, at an online function attended by US ambassador to SA Lana Marks.

“Advocate Heeramun embraced a cooperative working relationship with her colleagues in the United States and this led to justice truly being served,” Marks said.

A significant portion of those fines will be used for environmental conservation in South Africa. 
US Fish and Wildlife Service
The stolen conophytum plants are worth about R24.1m.
Pilfered The stolen conophytum plants are worth about R24.1m.
Image: CapeNature
Endangered conophytum plants are native to SA and Namibia and are sold to foreign collectors.
Prized Endangered conophytum plants are native to SA and Namibia and are sold to foreign collectors.
Image: CapeNature

“Most importantly, it sends a very strong message to all transnational criminals that the United States and South Africa are allies in the fight against crime and that together we make a united and formidable adversary for those who would destroy our environment for profit or otherwise disobey the rule of law,” Marks said.

SA is vulnerable to environmental crimes owing to its rich biodiversity, with rare succulent plants among the targets.

Kim and his accomplice were caught in possession of 60,397 conophytum plants worth about R24.1m, police said earlier in 2020.

Endangered conophytum plants, made up of several succulent species, are native to SA and Namibia and are sold to foreign collectors.

Heeramun said she was “deeply humbled and extremely grateful” for the award,  which she accepted on behalf of “everyone who contributed” to the extradition effort, including her local counterparts in the Endangered Species Unit, Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, and Kirstenbosch Gardens.

“Each of the role players are equally passionate about their work and therefore went beyond the call of their duty to ensure that they did what needed to be done and more,” said Heeramun, who also singled out Ed Newcomer from the USFWS. “He and I worked closely on this.”

She said that in the Western Cape there was a spike in environmental offences in 2019, with all cases involving foreigners. “I am pleased to report that severe sentences were dished out to the offenders, and that will hopefully act as deterrent in the future.  

“This offence took place before the pandemic hit SA, but that did not delay us in ensuring that the wheels of justice turned swiftly in both the US and SA.

“SA biodiversity has to be protected or else in time to come there will nothing left. We have a national and international obligation to address wildlife trafficking.”