Prickly Poachers

For many people, cacti are to plants what bulldogs are to house pets—the ugliest examples of the species. But people afflicted with cactophilia are nevertheless drawn to the plant, says Tony Mace, webmaster of the Cactus and Succulent Plant Mall. Mace estimates that there are 500 cactus clubs and over 40,000 collectors worldwide.

Some enthusiasts will go to any lengths—even unlawful ones—to own threatened and endangered cacti. Poaching of the large, much-coveted saguaro may involve the cover of darkness and flat-bed trucks with hydraulic lifts. The sheer size of a healthy saguaro coupled with an elaborate identification system makes this theft tricky. But big risks come with big bucks. The black market cacti can fetch as much as $100 per foot with extra bonuses for each “arm,” says Ted Cordery, the endangered species coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona.

Another—just as likely—victim is the Peebles Navajo cactus, says Cordery. Although the thumb-sized plant is rather nondescript, cactus lovers covet this diminutive plain Jane. Smaller pilfered plants, though less profitable, are much more difficult to trace. “We know that plants completely endemic to a specific area appear far from their native habitat,” says Dr. Mark Dimmitt, the director of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. “The conclusion is obvious, but I don’t know what the poachers’ methods are.”

Surprisingly, cacti purchased at nurseries cost buyers a mere $20 per foot, according to Dimmitt. And indigenous specimens—subjected as they are to harsh weather conditions and activities of animals—rarely look as nice as their greenhouse counterparts, he adds.

So, why do some collectors still prefer the wild plants? Like owners of stolen art, some people perceive pilfered plants as status enhancers and evidence of a vicariously dangerous hobby. But their fun may be seriously endangering the cacti’s continued existence in the wild. “There are several examples in which a population of rare cacti was discovered, and poachers took it to the point of extirpation within a year,” Dimmit says.

No doubt that as long as there are buyers, there will be poachers—but miscreants should think twice. If caught, cactus rustlers will be charged with at least a misdemeanor and possibly a felony, says Bill Kendall, a native plant and cultural resource officer with Arizona’s Department of Agriculture. And groups as diverse as Department of Public Safety officers, town marshals and National Park Service rangers collaborate to protect these native treasures.