It takes a saguaro cactus about 75 years to achieve its iconic shape.
It takes a couple of burly poachers about 30 minutes to steal it.
“They just wrap it in carpet to protect themselves from the spines, then they dig up its roots and heft it into a truck,” said Zeke Austin, special investigations supervisor for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. “It’s not sophisticated.”
While cactuses have a number of foes, including suburban sprawl, ATVs, and climate change, theft is the single biggest threat facing the spiny desert plants, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Plants. Black-market collectors, who often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare specimens, have put 30 percent of the species at risk for extinction.
In Arizona, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists two cactus species as vulnerable, five as threatened, and one, the Park Hedgehog Cactus, as endangered. But a number of the state’s 43 other species, including the saguaro (a favorite on the black market), are also experiencing concerning population declines.
“The closer a cactus gets to dying out, the more demand grows,” said Jan Schipper, a conservation researcher with Arizona State University and the Phoenix Zoo, who contributed to the study. “People want the rarest of the rare.”
As a particular type of cactus gains popularity in landscaping, its native population often dwindles, Schipper said, because 86 percent of threatened cactuses used for gardening or landscaping are scavenged from wild populations. According to Traffic, an organization that tracks the illegal trade of plants, a share of the cactuses now adorning Arizona yards — unbeknownst to their owners — may have been illegally collected from their native ranges in Mexico and South America.
“You see the Golden Barrel Cactus everywhere in the Arizona suburbs,” Schipper said. “But, because of illegal collecting for the horticultural trade, if you go to its native range in Mexico, it’s endangered.”
Cactus poaching has become so prevalent that scientists have stopped noting where they obtain their study samples in published reports. Now, they just draw big, vague circles.
“We’re not just going to give the thieves a map,” Schipper said.
The federal government has started implanting saguaros with microchips to deter theft and track location. State legislators have made it a felony to remove many species from private or public land without a permit.
Stealing a cactus could land an individual in jail for up to three years. But, for those who evade detection, the payout is high. A saguaro sells for an average of $550, Austin said, with some particularly regal cactuses fetching more than $1,000.
Austin uses a complicated tagging system to help ensure collectors leave with only what they've obtained permits for. He catches and prosecutes about 35 cases involving illegal cactus destruction, includes clearing land without proper notice, mutilation, illegal use of permits and tags, and theft. With only two investigators keeping watch millions of acres of state-owned land, he knows only a small fraction of infractions are even his radar.
Often, he said, violations seem innocent. Salvagers don’t use GPS and “accidentally” take cactuses from state land when they have a permit to take them from a private ranch. An old couple heads to the desert with a shovel and a bucket, hoping to spruce up their garden — completely ignorant of the damage they’re doing. In other cases, though, poaching is blatant, with thieves uprooting dozens of plants at a time and stashing them away.
“I don’t think people realize how important these plants are,” Austin said. “They don’t just make our home beautiful. The bats live off the fruit. The birds build their nests in them. And this is the only place in the world they grow.”
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