BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - There are pine trees, brush, pine straw, shrubs and bushes as far as the eye can see. What seems to be a vast landscape out in the middle of nowhere is actually a coveted place for those looking for a rare prize.
“It’s a carnivorous plant. It’s pretty cool, something that you don’t see every day,” NC Wildlife Officer T.C. Stacy said of the Venus flytrap. “Anything that is scarce in wildlife and in nature is going to have a dollar amount and status associated with it.”
The Venus flytrap is a rare, protected plant that grows in the wild only in a 75-mile radius around Wilmington.
“They are very tiny and so hard to find,” said Master Officer J.D. White. “You could walk all day and not find one single plant.”
“It’s amazing what people go through on their quest to find the plant," Stacy added. "They battle heat, ticks, snakes, and red bugs just to illegally poach these.”
Stacy and White played key roles in the recent arrest of a Brunswick County man who is facing dozens of felony charges after he allegedly poached the rare plant.
Archie Lee Williams Jr., 41, of Bolivia, was taken into custody Saturday, and charged with 73 felony counts of taking a Venus flytrap. He was booked in jail under a $750,000 bond.
White said Williams’ arrest came after a month-long investigation into the ongoing illegal poaching of the plants from the Pinch Gut game lands between US 17 and NC 211.
“It is so difficult to catch these folks," Stacy said. "We are in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes they get dropped off here and spend nights out here, even ride a bike in, and it’s not like I can sit behind that pine tree right there watching a cluster of flytraps all day long.”
In the most recent large-scale case, NC Wildlife set up a motion-activated game camera to try to catch the thieves in action.
On Saturday, White said while he was at a hunter education seminar in Harnett County, he received a picture of Williams making his way across the game land. White left the seminar in an attempt to intercept the suspect.
White and Stacy stopped Williams, who admitted digging up the plants and selling them to an unidentified man in Brunswick County who then resold them.
Williams had 216 plants in a bag as well as tools he used for digging. White said Williams admitted to poaching the Venus flytraps once a week, rotating between various game lands across the county.
This isn’t an isolated incident in Brunswick County, according to White. He estimated around 200 of the plants are stolen from game lands every week.
“A lot of times they dig up a cluster of about 50 to 70 plants, and perhaps they sell them at flea markets or garage sales for $4 or $5 each," Stacy said. "They came out here for free, got away with it, and made some quick cash.”
NC Wildlife says poachers are often familiar with game lands and even know the traps are more visible after controlled burns in forests.
“These poachers know about two to three weeks is the best time to look," Stacy said. "Everything is black, and then the traps are bright green and they stand out.”
Both wildlife officers said it’s virtually impossible to patrol all the game lands and look for disturbed lands or signs of digging, so they rely on the public for help.
“We are really on the learning curve with all this," White said. "It’s really just blown up in the past 10 to 15 years. For us, the more gamelands that we buy up, the more we get acclimated to this type of crime.”
It’s a crime you will only find around Wilmington. That’s why, in 2014, a bill was signed into law that changed poaching the plants from a misdemeanor to a Class H felony, punishable by up to 25 months in prison.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a petition to include the Venus flytrap on the endangered species list.