When Paul Simmons Jr. and three accomplices poached 97o Venus flytraps from eastern North Carolina early last year, they uprooted almost 3 percent of the entire naturally grown population.

Venus flytraps can be cultivated anywhere, but the small carnivorous plants only naturally grow in one spot in the whole world: a 75-mile radius around Wilmington, N.C. To preserve this flytrap sanctuary, North Carolina upped the ante for stealing them. In 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law making it a felony.

This week, Simmons was the first to be found guilty of the new felony charge, and he was sentenced to six to 17 months in prison, the Port City Daily reported. Two of the other poachers will receive probation, and the fourth is awaiting trial.

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According to the Nature Conservancy, substantial poaching takes place in North Carolina each year. “If you see someone selling flytraps at a flea market, on the roadside or over the Internet, there is a good chance that they are stolen,” they write on their website.

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When the poaching was just a $50 misdemeanor, “people would get a slap on the hand in court, and they didn’t care,” Debbie Crane, director of communications for the Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter told Scientific American. “They came out of court grinning.”

Simmons and the other poachers pulled their heist in January 2015,  just one month after the crime became a felony. N.C. Wildlife Officer Fred Gorchess got a call reporting a man with a large bag darting across the road near a stretch of North Carolina game land, WWAY News reported.

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“Our two options of what we thought — maybe is what it was marijuana or Venus flytraps — so we thought if it was Venus flytraps, it’s a lot of traps,” Gorchess told WWAY News.

Gorchess pulled over a car that matched the witness’s description. The men told him they were birdwatching. That’s when he saw the bags of flytraps and arrested them. Later, in November 2015, two other men were arrested for stealing more than 1,000 Venus flytraps and two pitcher plants from Orton Plantation, according to WWAY News coverage.

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The Charlotte Observer reported that the second band of flytrap thieves was jailed with a $1 million bond, an “amount more commonly reserved for murderers.” The Charlotte Observer also said that of two men arrested, one had a 2012 conviction on his record for taking wild plants and the other had several “plant-related priors.” In 2009, 900 Venus flytraps were taken from the Green Swamp Preserve. In 2006, so many flytraps were stolen that officials marked them with orange dye.

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So why steal a whole bunch of Venus flytraps? As with most crimes, for the money. But it’s not the most lucrative profession.

“What makes poaching so sad and stupid is that the people who are doing it are local folks,” Crane told Scientific American. “They’re not making much money off of it. They’re selling the bulbs for maybe 25 cents. It’s an incredibly stupid thing that they’re going to wipe out this wonderful thing in nature.”

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Venus flytraps have long been a fascination for children, botanists and “Little Shop of Horrors” fans. In 1892, Charles Darwin called them “one of the most wonderful plants in the world,” and dedicated a whole book to the study of carnivorous plants.

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He was fascinated by their ability to snap their “mouths” shut on their prey. When an insect or spider tickles the hairs that line a flytrap’s jaw, the plant can close fast enough that its victim can’t escape. The bug is trapped in its grasp, being slowly decomposed through digestive enzymes. A Venus flytrap can even digest human flesh (only if fed it, of course).

With the new law in effect, lawmakers hope that poachers will think twice before removing the flytraps from their natural habitat.

“Venus flytraps are a unique and important part of Southeastern North Carolina’s ecosystem,” District Attorney Ben David said to The Guardian. “I am proud that the Fifth District will be the first to prosecute the new felony charge and commend N.C. Wildlife Resources for their enforcement of the law.”

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