Sunday, August 28, 2005

ENV: Enforcing CITES

The Cult of the Cycads
By LAUREN KESSLER,The New York Times, August 28, 2005


A man who calls himself Marty Sterns is taking care of business in the faux French Provincial dining room of a top-floor suite in the Las Vegas Mirage. Sterns is a small, trim man in his late 40's with a close-cropped graying beard, sandy hair and the quick, carefully controlled moves of a man on the make who doesn't want to look like one. ''This is everything that came in the March shipment,'' he says to the two men sitting at the table. Rolf Bauer is beefy, a Bob Hoskins look-alike, wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt that's tight against his gut. Jan Van Vuuren, jowly, with a receding hairline and reading glasses, has the look of an Omaha insurance salesman circa 1965. Sterns is standing between them, pointing to an itemized list he has placed on the table.

He is taking great pains to detail the shipment. ''This is what you sent over,'' he says, pointing to his list, ''and this is what I sold.'' He hasn't moved some goods from the most recent shipment yet, and he apologizes. He looks up from the list, a little nervous, but Van Vuuren assures him that it's all right.

Today Van Vuuren and Bauer expect cash payments from Sterns, maybe $15,000 or so, but they figure that he is good for a lot more. Sterns is full of ideas. He's got a friend, a very rich friend, who wants in. Sterns leaves the room for a moment, and Van Vuuren and Bauer confer quickly. They are pleased with the way things are going.

When Sterns returns, the men sip cold beers and negotiate their business future. Sterns wants to get the money taken care of. He lays a fat envelope on the table between the two men. Then he goes back over the itemized list. ''This is the money I owe you,'' Sterns says, pointing to a figure on the list. ''And this is what has already been transferred to your account.'' Now he is going to pay them the difference. He opens the flap of the envelope and removes a wad of cash. But before he starts counting out hundred-dollar bills, he takes a moment to remove an ice bucket from the middle of the table and shove some books to the side. Now the way is clear to count out the cash.

The way is also clear for the surveillance camera hidden in Marty Sterns's shoulder bag to catch the money shot, the caught-in-the-act, cash-changing-hands shot, the one that could make the case.

''Look at that!'' marveled Dave Martin, who was showing me a tape of this July 2000 meeting on a video monitor in a government office just south of San Francisco International Airport. ''It's the big one, the shot that counts, and he's so relaxed, he's thinking about camera angles. This guy is a pro.''

With Martin was the pro himself, also watching the tape. But his name is not Marty Sterns. It's Kenneth McCloud, Special Agent McCloud. He produced, directed and starred in this particular drama, a two-year sting to catch smugglers on four continents. The first arrests were made in 2001, and the latest indictment resulting from the sting was issued in late March. Martin, who played an important supporting role, is McCloud's unofficial apprentice and ardent admirer.

On screen, Special Agent McCloud, posing as Marty Sterns, begins to count out the money. Bauer and Van Vuuren exchange quick, satisfied glances. Watching the video, McCloud shook his head. ''Bad guys,'' he said. But these guys weren't dealing in uncut heroin or grenade launchers or nuclear devices. They were selling plants.


Cycads, prehistoric subtropical plants that look like a cross between palms and ferns -- but are actually closer cousins to conifers -- are in many ways unnatural objects of desire. Unlike orchids, cycads do not produce elegant stalks of comely flowers. They produce no flowers at all. They are often short and squat with dun-colored trunks that in some species resemble supersize pineapples and in others 40-foot worms. Their frondlike foliage is mostly unremarkable, except for those plants with leaves so spiky that they can draw blood or so tough that they can cut through clothes.

Aesthetically challenged, cycads have other issues, too. The cones produced by one species that grows in Indonesia smell so bad that locals are compelled to chop them down and bury them. The leaves, stems and seeds of many cycads contain neurotoxins potent enough to paralyze grazing cattle and produce Alzheimer's-like symptoms in humans. The plants themselves can grow with the alacrity of a glacier, taking decades, and sometimes centuries, to reach maturity.

These are seriously weird plants. They produce outsize, often garishly colored cones -- lemon yellow, scarlet, maroon, pumpkin orange, apricot -- that can weigh as much as 90 pounds apiece. Male plants (cycads are either male or female) produce long, unmistakably phallic cones that wilt after their job is done. Inside, they contain the largest sperm cells of any living creature. The females generally produce fuller, rounded cones that open to reveal plump, glistening seeds. Pollination was once thought to occur prosaically, by a gust of wind. But it is now believed that the cones generate heat that produces a scent that attracts burrowing weevils. The insects do the work, shuttling pollen to female plants as they search for food, shelter and a place to mate. Because it can take too much energy, females often do not produce cones every season. They must rest up for a year or more between efforts.

Botany wonks, eccentric gardeners and quirky landscapers might be drawn to cycads. But what makes these plants not just an interesting oddity, not just a backyard collectible, but of interest to smugglers, is their rarity. Once they were among the rulers of the kingdom of flora, a dominant plant during the Jurassic Age, believed to have been a favorite food of the stegosaurus. Today, after surviving 250 million years, after weathering dinosaurs, ice ages, meteors, tectonic-plate shifts, volcanic eruptions and various mass extinctions, many species of cycads are either endangered or extinct. What nature failed to achieve in millenniums, humans have accomplished in barely 100 years. In the 20th century, destruction of habitat and what euphemistically might be called ''overcollection'' have decimated the world's cycad population. They can be found in many tropical and subtropical locales, from rain forest to grassland to desert. But many of the remaining species are found in remote areas in South Africa, Central and South America and Australia, where they are particularly vulnerable to theft.

Since 1975, an international treaty known as Cites (pronounced site-EEZ), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has tried to protect cycads. A few species are so widely cultivated that they aren't protected -- the sago palm, for example, can be found in garden shops in cycad-friendly growing areas like Florida and Southern California. But the rare varieties need all the help they can get. Cycads listed in Cites Appendix I, the rarest and most endangered, are essentially banned from international trade. These are generally species just a few dozen plants away from extinction. It is against international law to remove them or their seeds from the wild and against international law to sell them. Plants on Cites Appendix II can be traded, but with important provisos. Each plant must be accompanied by a legal export permit, a document granted only if the plant is ''artificially propagated'' -- that is, not taken from the wild but grown from seed in a nursery.

But that doesn't stop smugglers who sneak cycads out of Africa and into the United States by lying on the export permits. They claim that a plant was artificially propagated when it was actually ripped from the wild. They knowingly mislabel plants, identifying a cycad on Cites Appendix I -- a plant that is illegal to sell -- as an Appendix II plant. They obtain permits for plants that are legal to export and use the documents to accompany illegal plants. Cycads are often stripped of all their foliage to make them easy to ship, so that one cycad's bare squat trunk (called a ''caudex'' in the trade) looks a lot like another cycad's bare squat trunk. In this altered state, it would take an expert to distinguish between a relatively common and an impossibly rare plant.

A cult has grown up around these plants that includes a cadre of bad guys who smuggle for profit as well as a smattering of the superwealthy who enjoy the notion of owning what might be considered the botanical equivalent of a garage full of Rolls-Royces. Brad Pitt, Oscar de la Renta and David Bowie are all reported to have had significant (and legal) cycad collections. The cult also includes a small but wildly varied group of hyperenthusiasts, the kind of obsessive collectors who form around just about any hard-to-find object.

At least 500 serious collectors worldwide find these extraordinary prehistoric plants too weirdly wonderful to resist. The hard-core collectors are almost all men. There's something bold and aggressive about a cycad. This plant is no pansy. It's a survivor, tough and rugged with a bit of an attitude. A cycad set in a backyard garden is the manly antithesis of, say, an African violet floating in a grandmother's bone china teacup.


Tim Gregory doesn't consider himself much of a collector. True, he grows a few hundred carefully chosen cycads in his garden in Northern California, but for Gregory, a biochemist and senior director at Genentech by day, it's not about owning the plants but about studying them. For the past 10 years he has systematically explored parts of Mexico to identify and classify new species. He and a few fellow cycad enthusiasts bought a 100-acre coffee plantation in the Pacific coastal mountains of Oaxaca and are converting it into a cycad research station. Gregory, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and has published more than 70 papers in his scientific field, is also the author of 8 botanical papers on cycads. ''Whenever my mind wanders,'' Gregory said, ''it goes to cycads.'' But his interest, he told me, is cerebral. He's fascinated. He's absorbed. He's engrossed. But he's not enchanted. He's not in love. ''I'm the exact opposite of those who have emotional resonance,'' Gregory said.

He is, then, the exact opposite of Maurice Levin, a Harvard M.B.A. and erstwhile investment banker who now makes his living selling cycads. In 1990, he and his wife were vacationing in the Virgin Islands when a guide took them on a horticultural tour and pointed out a cycad, describing it as a living fossil. A chord that Levin didn't even know he had in him was struck. Here was a plant that preserved a message from the ages, he thought. Here was a plant that had survived for millenniums on the botanical equivalent of bread and water. Here was a plant that gave off a cosmic aura. He was smitten. As soon as he returned to Los Angeles, he bought his first cycad.

Now, 15 years later, as the owner of A&A Cycads in North Hollywood, he has sold tens of thousands of seeds, seedlings and big and little plants to resorts, developers, landscapers and backyard gardeners. He goes on cycad-centric vacations with his young son in tow. He prints cycad manifestoes on his extensive Web site, having secured the much-desired U.R.L. cycads.com. He is a man on a mission, he says, determined to save wild cycads by selling legal seeds -- seeds from artificially propagated plants -- cheaply, thus taking the financial incentive out of digging up the plants and smuggling them. Meanwhile, his own half-acre backyard collection has taken a back seat.

Not so for Bart Schutzman, who has amassed such an extensive collection of cycads on his 20-acre property outside Gainesville, Fla., that he can't leave home for longer than two days. ''It's because of the watering schedule,'' he said. ''And the dogs.'' Schutzman, director of publications for the Cycad Society and editor of its newsletter, is a senior programmer analyst at the Department of Environmental Horticulture at the University of Florida and the owner of 18 dogs. He needs them to help protect his 500-plus-plant collection grown in three nursery-size greenhouses. The collection, which he began for research, is worth serious money and is a temptation to thieves. The dogs help. So does the fact that Schutzman tells very few people exactly where he lives.

Schutzman had not given much thought to cycads when he was studying for his bachelor's degree in plant science at the University of California, Davis. He was then an orchid man. But when a professor showed him his collection of cycads, Schutzman went, by his own admission, ''nuts.'' It just happens to some people, he said matter-of-factly. What happened to Schutzman was something he described as ''primal memory.'' He said he felt immediately and powerfully connected to the prehistoric plants. Somewhere deep in his brain, deep in the collective unconscious, something resonated. He can't explain it exactly, but perhaps it has to do with cycads as a living conduit to his own ancient ancestors.

Like all cycad nuts, Schutzman delights in tales of collectors even nuttier than he is. There's this one guy, he said, who developed such a collector's zeal that he cultivated connections all over the world, nourishing pseudofriendships for years just so that someday he could hit up his new friends for seeds. He was, Schutzman said, ''a man driven.'' It nearly cost him his marriage. And he nearly went to jail. It turned out that some of the cycads he bought were illegal.

There are other such stories: the collector who risked his life going into a guerrilla-held area in Colombia to get a cycad; the collector who flew cross-country to buy a single plant; the collectors who spend every weekend on plant-buying excursions, forsaking all else, including wives and kids. There are stories of extreme collectors, men who go after the ''world list'' of known cycad species. For the die-hard enthusiast, the tame hobby of plant collecting has become an obsession. For some, it is almost an addiction -- ''the green needle,'' as one collector has called it. And, like other addictions, it fuels crime. The rare cycads that these collectors so badly want cannot be legally obtained.

The international illegal trade in wildlife, including both plants and animals, is estimated to be a $6-billion- to $10-billion-a-year business, among the top three illicit activities along with drugs and arms. (The government isn't exactly sure how much of that amount is for cycads, but it is certainly a smaller piece than, say, illegal trafficking of ivory or exotic reptiles.) Smuggling plants may not have the same cachet as smuggling dope, but the risk-to-benefit ratio is a lot better. It is possible to make real profits, paying local villagers $2 a day to collect plants in the wild that might be sold in the United States for hundreds or even thousands of dollars apiece. A mature plant of a certain species can bring as much as $50,000. It is possible for a ''suitcase smuggler'' to avoid arrest by pleading ignorance -- especially when one species so closely resembles another in the stripped form. And it is possible to run a lucrative smuggling operation, because who, after all, would be watching?


In 1996, Ken McCloud, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent, just completed the covert part of Operation Chameleon, a four-year sting designed to nab international smugglers of rare and endangered Madagascan reptiles. At one point, McCloud, who was then posing as a nefarious ponytailed reptile ''breeder consultant,'' was tending to a half-million dollars' worth of exotic reptiles housed in cages in the spare bedroom of the suburban California home he shared with his wife, Rose.

McCloud, then 40, had worked for Fish and Wildlife since he was 22, putting in more than a decade as a wildlife inspector -- a job that involved checking out things like live venomous snakes and virus-carrying primates -- before becoming a special agent. There are only 219 Fish and Wildlife special agents in the United States, and only a half-dozen of them are involved in long-term sting operations. McCloud became a member of this elite corps, creating fake identities, inhabiting sham worlds and infiltrating criminal subcultures. During the course of his work, guns were pointed at his head, a contract was put out on his life and he slept with a knife wedged in his boot. He loved the job. But he was not a hot-dogger; he was a soft-spoken, unassuming man who cared deeply for what he called ''the critters'' and wanted to catch the bad guys who were doing them harm.

As McCloud was cleaning up Operation Chameleon, tending to the paperwork and pondering what his next undercover project would be, Dave Martin started talking to him about cycads. Martin was a true believer, a university-trained conservation ecologist with a scientist's knowledge and an activist's zeal. He had helped McCloud with investigations in the past, and although the men were a world of temperament apart -- Martin was as high-strung and intense as McCloud was calm and deliberate -- they admired and trusted each other. Martin had heard and read about cycads and got McCloud interested by putting together three thick binders of information on the plant, its increasingly tenuous existence and its apparent popularity with smugglers.

Eager to get back in action, McCloud, with Martin's help, created a detailed proposal for a new undercover venture focusing on illegal traffic in cycads, which he successfully presented to the environmental-crime division of the Department of Justice. His bosses at Fish and Wildlife gave him the go-ahead along with a $225,000 budget. In what came to be called Operation Botany, McCloud would play the role of Marty Sterns, a plant importer and owner of the fictitious Hu Enterprises, a business set up to buy cycads and other plants from overseas and sell them to collectors in the United States. He would first work to become known in the cycad community, then establish connections with dealers who made big promises and finally use government money to do business.

As he began the painstaking and meticulous work of setting up the operation, McCloud used as his bible a confidential memo sent to Fish and Wildlife from a highly placed South African conservationist. The memo carefully itemized the methods used to smuggle cycads out of the country and then pointed to several men, one of whom was Peter Heibloem.


Peter Heibloem is one of the most prominent authorities on African cycads in the world, author of a highly regarded guide to cycads of Central Africa and owner of one of the most complete cycad collections on earth. About 17 years ago, when he bought his first plant, Heibloem didn't know exactly what a cycad was. An amateur gardener living on the Sunshine Coast of northeastern Australia, he was making his living as a self-empowerment guru. He saw an ad for the plant in his local newspaper and went to take a look. He thought it was striking, a very nice plant, but to him it looked just like a palm. It was, the seller informed him indignantly, a rare cycad from the rain forest of North Queensland. Intrigued, Heibloem bought it and took it home.

The plant spoke to him, as cycads do to those who come under their spell. He sensed what he described in a recent e-mail message as the ''powerful, sometimes intoxicating essence which can captivate the person and cause them to experience great feelings of tranquillity, pleasure and strength.'' Heibloem wanted to learn all about cycads but soon realized that few people in his area knew more than he did. Then he recalled attending a lecture by a motivational speaker from the United States who said that anyone could become an international expert on any subject by studying one hour a day for seven years.

That's all Heibloem needed. ''We never have a burning desire that endures without also possessing the ability to make it happen,'' he told me. If that sounds like a line from one of his self-empowerment lectures, it is. This is what Heibloem teaches students in his Alpha Mind Power Training Seminars around the world. It is also his personal credo.

With discipline, focus and enormous energy, fueled by an absolute belief in himself, and in thrall to what he perceived as the ''ancient, majestic vibe'' of the cycad, Heibloem made himself into the international expert he is today. Along the way he collected more than 200 species of cycads, went on numerous collection trips to Africa and began supplying other collectors with rare seeds and plants from his travels.


To get Operation Botany rolling, McCloud -- now undercover as Marty Sterns -- and Martin flew to Miami to hobnob with enthusiasts and dealers at Cycad 99, an international conference. There they met Heibloem and two dealers from South Africa, Rolf Bauer and Jan Van Vuuren. The game was afoot. McCloud, as owner of the fictitious Hu Enterprises, eventually began to contract with Van Vuuren and Bauer for deliveries of rare and endangered cycads. Because McCloud was working with a limited budget, the deal was this: Hu Enterprises would pay for shipping only. As McCloud ''sold'' the plants, he would pay off Van Vuuren and Bauer. Meanwhile, Martin, working with McCloud, slowly cultivated a business relationship with Heibloem, who would, through Martin, supply a wealthy Southern California businessman with extraordinary plants for his collection. The plants from these men and others began arriving at San Francisco International Airport, crates and containers of them, hundreds and hundreds of them, worth an estimated $840,000.

By mid-2001, it was time to drop the net. The trick was to get the men on U.S. turf to make the arrests. McCloud enticed Van Vuuren and Bauer to Las Vegas with a promise of a free high-end vacation. Martin arranged Heibloem's visit to Southern California on the pretense of meeting wealthy collectors and making a special presentation to a local cycad society.

On a carefully plotted July day, Martin picked up Heibloem from the Los Angeles home of a man with a cycad collection so valuable that he had installed video security cameras to guard it. Then, en route to visit another collector, Martin pulled into a shopping center, explaining that he needed to get cash from an A.T.M. As soon as he got out of the car, federal agents arrested Heibloem.

That same day, in Las Vegas, Rolf Bauer was gambling while Jan Van Vuuren was playing golf with a man they knew as Nelson DeLuca. DeLuca was the guy Marty Sterns introduced them to, the wealthy real-estate developer supposedly interested in buying rare and expensive cycads to landscape the multimillion-dollar homes he built. DeLuca was really Special Agent Sam Jojola, working as backup with McCloud.

Jojola was a dark-haired, handsome man, expensively dressed with a vintage Rolex strapped to his wrist. He showed Bauer and Van Vuuren color photographs of fancy homes he said he had built in Arizona and Nevada. After a weekend in Vegas, DeLuca was supposedly going to fly them to San Francisco in his corporate jet. There was a Lincoln Town Car waiting. They stashed their bags in the trunk, and DeLuca got behind the wheel, a transmitter in the pocket of his sports coat. That way the federal agents who were in the car following them at a discreet distance couldn't possibly lose them. When they arrived at the security gate that guarded the private-jet area at the airport, DeLuca stopped the car. He told Van Vuuren and Bauer that he had mistakenly left the key card, which he needed to open the gate, in the trunk.

DeLuca's getting out of the car was the agreed-upon signal. The federal agents zipped up behind the Lincoln, jumped out of their car and cuffed Van Vuuren and Bauer. Agents Jojola and McCloud, as DeLuca and Sterns, had been so utterly convincing, the sting had been so seamless and slick, that Van Vuuren and Bauer were clueless.

''Mr. DeLuca is not involved in this,'' Van Vuuren told the arresting officers. Special Agent Jojola turned away so that Van Vuuren and Bauer couldn't see him smile.


Operation Botany resulted in indictments against 12 men. Rolf Bauer, Jan Van Vuuren and Peter Heibloem were charged with a total of 41 counts of conspiracy, smuggling and making false statements. Bauer and Heibloem pleaded guilty to one felony count each of conspiracy to smuggle; Van Vuuren pleaded to one felony count of conspiracy to make false statements.

Donald C. Randolph, the lawyer who represented Heibloem, told me he thought that the whole investigation was misguided. ''The people targeted were collectors dedicated to the preservation of cycads,'' he said. ''Juxtapose this with people who import rhino horns or parts of animals where you have to destroy the animal to get it. These people fervently want the species to continue. Part of their motivation is to ensure that this happens.'' At any rate, the sentences were light -- relatively modest fines, credit for time served and probation -- and the men were able to return to their countries. The attorneys for the defendants say the government's case was weak. Government lawyers counter that several complexities affected the case, including assessing the true value of an endangered species. They also acknowledged the difficulty in distinguishing a wild cycad from an artificially propagated one. And in a world of murder and mayhem, it is difficult to get stiff sentences for those who commit crimes against the environment. Still, McCloud and the legal team at the Department of Justice consider the sting a success. Every major dealer was touched. ''We may not have gotten them behind bars, but we made them think,'' McCloud said. ''We made them think hard.''

The collectors had to think hard as well. Enthusiasts had been buying plants they suspected they shouldn't have been buying, not asking the questions they knew they should have been asking or, most dangerously, convincing themselves that by buying a rare and endangered plant, a plant taken from the wild, they were, in fact, saving it rather than contributing to its demise. The sting, which echoed loudly through the insular cycad world, showed collectors that their actions had consequences and set cycad chat rooms buzzing. ''The cycad world has been turned upside down,'' someone calling himself ''Plantsman53'' wrote in one chat. ''People are wondering if federal agents are going to come for a visit,'' said another collector.

The fear was not unwarranted. In March, the federal government indicted a Florida man for importing, selling and mislabeling Cites-protected cycads.

''The sting shook everyone to their roots,'' Tim Gregory, the Genentech scientist who spends his free time roaming Mexico in search of new cycad species, told me not long ago. ''It made the collectors reassess their ethics. That's painful, but it's good.'' Then he leaned back in his chair and looked at his bookcase. On a shelf along with photographs of kids and family were framed pictures of cycads.

Lauren Kessler is the author, most recently, of ''Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era.'' She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.