Foreign Policy Magazine

THE THRILL OF THE HUNT

CHINESE CUSTOMERS PAYING HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS PER POUND OF WILD APPALACHIAN GINSENG ARE FEEDING A DIGGING FRENZY THAT THREATENS TO DECIMATE THE REVERED ROOT FOR GOOD.

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF BOONE, North Carolina, a small college and ski town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Travis Cornett had turned his bucolic farm into a virtual fortress. He’d started by installing a handful of security cameras across his 12 acres of sloping pine woods. Then he’d nailed 15 bright red signs to tree trunks along the property line that warned, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” He also kept a .22 Ruger rifle and a Kalashnikov on hand.

As far as Cornett was concerned, no one was going to touch his ginseng.

It was the fall of 2013, six years since Cornett had planted his first “sang,” as locals call it: some 40 pounds of seed in a patch of forest shade. Initially, Cornett wasn’t too worried about poachers, well known around Boone for stealing ginseng from land that isn’t theirs. His fledging crop, low growing with green, jagged-edged leaves, had looked like wild strawberry plants. Now, though, it was coming into its prime. The maturing stems were taking on a distinctive purple tinge, their leaves multiplying, their berries turning lipstick red. Cornett knew that the plants’ roots, which are more valuable with age, could soon fetch hundreds of dollars per pound. It was only a matter of time before the rest of his farm, where he’d planted more seed over the years, would grow ripe for profit—and for theft.

Yet his fortifications weren’t enough. One September afternoon, neighbors saw a scruffy man creeping around Cornett’s land. When Cornett got the news—the security cameras had failed to pick up the intruder—he grabbed a weed whacker and unleashed it on his oldest ginseng, slicing off the leafy tops. If poachers couldn’t spot the decapitated plants, he reasoned, they couldn’t steal the roots.

A week later, though, he got a call that the trespasser had returned. Just then, the man was walking up a country byway near Cornett’s property, wearing dirt-covered jeans and carrying a backpack. Cornett, who was a few minutes from home, jumped into his black GMC truck and sped through the rural hills until he spotted David Presnell. When confronted, Presnell pleaded with Cornett not to call the cops. Cornett pulled out his cell phone anyway, and Presnell took off running, unzipping his backpack as he went. Then he reached inside and started tossing tan, snaking ginseng roots by the handful into laurel thickets lining the road.

By the time police arrived several minutes later, nothing was left in Presnell’s bag save some dirt and a few stringy runners. At Cornett’s urging, however, the cops drove to Presnell’s mobile home, where they found several roots strung up to dry. Others were dehydrating on large screened trays. The incursion into Cornett’s property, police suspected, wasn’t a first offense.

In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia—the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi—who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across

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