Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smuggling Wiping Out Last of Mythical Herb

The ancient herb is believed to prevent cancer, heal infections and cure impotence. But many of the people who spend hundreds f even thousands f of dollars for a pinch of wild ginseng's magical powers may soon be out of luck.

Illegal harvesting coupled with a lack of protectionist laws is threatening to make wild ginseng a thing of the past, naturalists and government officials say.

Wild ginseng, grown mainly in the Russian Far East, is favored over nursery-grown crops in Asian markets because it contains much higher levels of the chemicals thought to cure numerous ailments.

"Wild ginseng is in real danger," said Pavel Fomenko, a coordinator for the World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF, after a recent trip to the Far East.

"I simply could not recognize the places where I was last year," Fomenko said. "[Ginseng] is becoming very rare in the taiga, which at one time was filled with it."

Other observers are also very concerned. The Russian government has asked a watchdog group, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to include the herb on its list and regional officials are mounting raids on ginseng fields in a bid to catch poachers red-handed.

"The area where ginseng grows has become much smaller," said Gennady Kolonin, a senior consultant for the State Environmental Committe. "For example, the herb has vanished in many parts of the Khabarovsk region."

All the current fuss over the golden yellow root the size of a baby carrot may be hard to swallow. But controversy has for centuries followed ginseng, which at one time was worth more than gold.

One Chinese legend tells the tale of Emperor Tsin Shi Huandi's failed quest for ginseng in the Far East taiga, when he in 200 B.C. sent 6,000 of his best soldiers to harvest the herb and the entire expedition mysteriously disappeared.

As long ago as 2000 B.C. the Chinese believed that the herb had the power to give strength to the weak and bolster the muscles of already powerful men.

While Ginseng enthusiasts today do not put too much stock into talk of ginseng turning wimps into supermen, they do insist that the herb contains remarkable medicinal substances.

"Ginseng contains strong concentrations of components making this herb a very effective treatment against various, and sometimes very difficult, diseases," said Alexei Vaisman, a top Russian representative with Traffic Europe, an international nature organization.

The vitamin-rich herb increases the body's resistance to infections and is an effective treatment for cancer and people exposed to toxic substances, he said.

With wild ginseng containing 30 percent more of those medicinal substances, it has become a hot item in post-communist Russia for poachers eager to sell the herb in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, experts said.

"At the beginning of the '90s, the Russian Federation liberalized economic ties with China and many [Chinese] rushed into the area for ginseng," Vaisman said.

At the same time, locals began losing their jobs as the regional economy shrank, he said. "So the illegal harvesting of ginseng f a difficult and labor-intensive job f became the way out for many."

A system of poachers, middlemen and dealers has developed over the past 10 years and exports have kept growing, according to WWF and Traffic Europe research.

For the dealers, ginseng yields fantastic profits. Although poachers sell the roots to mostly Chinese middlemen for only $2 a gram, the herb goes for $40 a gram to $120 a gram in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Entire roots are often given their own names and can command prices in the thousands of dollars. Particularly popular are roots in the shape of a man f penis and all f which are believed to contain the most concentrated powers.

"Prime examples weighing over 300 grams in the shape of a man may cost up to several thousands dollars," Vaisman said. "Imagine how profitable the business is."

Sales of illegal harvests in Asia took in at least $80 million last year, Fomenko of the WWF estimated.

Much to its chagrin, the WWF recently found that many of the people living in the ginseng region are now involved in illegal harvesting of ginseng.

"During our research [into ginseng], we went to various villages in the Chuguyevsky, Pozharsky and Kirovsky regions, where we tried to investigate how this business is organized," Fomenko said. "We spoke to numerous poachers and dealers in an informal atmosphere to arrange personal contacts."

The WWF discovered that illegal harvesting brought in 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms last year, a large portion of the 5,000 to 6,000 kilograms of raw roots believed to remain in the wild.

"It is almost a disaster because the amount of illegal harvesting is comparable with the entire amount of wild ginseng," Fomenko said.

The official harvest quota, set up by the government, is only 75 kilograms a year for the entire country. Violators, though, face only a slap on the wrist f confiscation of the root and a fine of several hundred rubles.

Fomenko is not giving up on his fight for ginseng yet, but he says he is running out of ideas on how to protect the plant. When the WWF official came to check out the ginseng situation last year, he decided to secretly plant the herb in nooks and crannies unknown to poachers. But the return trip this year left him dismayed.

"Those plantings also turned out to be destroyed," Fomenko said. "In several places I saw groups of people searching for ginseng. But in others where I had sown the roots last year, I just found the tracks of diggers: fresh holes and flattened grass."