Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Cactus Poaching

Thievery in the deserts of the U.S. and Mexico kill centuries-old plants for candy, profit, and landscape design.

imageCandy Barrelcactus

(Ferocactus wislizeni)

Photo: T. Beth O’Reilly

Thanks to “The Cactus Wren,” our new friend from Nevada, for the following:

“In the deserts of the southwest U.S., cactus poaching or cactus wrangling, is a common crime.  The motives behind it can vary. 

“Some of the instigators just have a warped disrespect for things of the wild and get a kick out of yanking hundreds of years out of the ground.  Larger specimens of cactus and yucca can be up to 500 years old.  Some vandals have a more utilitarian purpose in mind.  South of the border, barrel cactus is prized for the pulp that makes a special candy.  Surely there would be a better way to “harvest the crop” than lopping tops entirely off and leaving the rest to rot.

“Some poachers are practiced thieves, who dig an entire specimen cactus like a Saguaro for a landscape accent, and make quite a living off of it.  Other cactus thieves are obsessive collectors of plant material and look for that unique species, already rare in its natural habitat.  Finally, there are the vandals who can honestly claim ignorance as an excuse.

“The lack of knowledge about desert environments and the life they support is widespread among the public.  How to counter this desert crime?  The National Park Service has inserted microchips in some cactus, so that they can be traced in the resale market.  But the most important deterrent is the presence of law enforcement – cactus rangers, if you will.  Most southwestern states have native plant laws in force. Education is the next best deterrent.  Once people learn the impressive survival skills of these sentinels of the American deserts, they see the need to protect them.”

A report commissioned by the World Wildlife Federation studied cactus trade—legal and illegal—in the Chihuahuan Desert, a huge ecosystem that stretches from Central Mexico to Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. Nearly a quarter of all 1500 known varieties of cactus grow here.

A “booming desert landscaping trend, combined with poor regulation of legal plant harvesting, is putting pressure on many species,” TRAFFIC found. “If the demand for wild plants is not reduced rapidly, especially cacti, from the Chihuahuan Desert, we run the risk of destabilizing populations and losing species.”

imageHedgehog cactus

(Echinocereus chisoensis var. chisoensis)

Photo: Paul Montgomery

One especially vulnerable plant is the Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus chisoensis var. chisoensis ) of Big Bend National Park. Botanists working in the Chisos Mountains say only about 1000 of these plants remain.  “Large showy flowers bloom on the cactus in March and remain through July. The tri-colored flowers have pinkish to magenta pointed-tip petals, white throats, and a dark crimson base. Greenish-red, club-shaped fruits with wooly areoles and bristly spines adorn the flowers. As the fruits ripen, they split open, exposing warty, oval seeds.”

Naturalist and photographer Paul Montgomery, who kindly provided this picture,  writes, “Cactus thievery, particularly with cacti smaller than the Hedgehog, will eliminate many species within our lifetime. And when a cactus is removed from its habitat, placed in a flowerpot, given artificial fertilizer, and too much water,  it no longer looks like its former self.”

While penalties for cactus poaching (and enforcement diligence) vary state to state, cactus sellers in Texas are now required to offer proof that each plant was harvested legally. There are fines of up to $1000 and potential jail time for violations.


Poached red barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes), 100+ years old

Photo: Cactus Wren

Skipping over the Texas border to “safety”? Check out this story of a cactus heist in Toronto (heavy gloves required). Here’s a brief about a suspect caught in Switzerland with Texas succulents. And one more article, about 21 saguaro cactus rustlers, each facing charges of theft of federal property. Ay! Conviction in Arizona carries “a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.”

If people don’t care about endangered plants and cactus spines won’t deter them, maybe a $250,000 clonk on the wrist will get their attention.

Posted by Julie on 03/30 at 10:27 AM
Cut-Flower TradeEcologyGardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink