Cactuses at Risk

April 20, 2018
PLANT POWER Saguaros in the Sonoran Desert can be 60 feet tall.
KEN CANNING—GETTY IMAGES

The sun goes down in the Sonoran Desert. A truck pulls up. Poachers step out. They dig up a giant saguaro (sa-wah-ro). They wrap it in a carpet. Then they drive away.

Cactuses are disappearing. People are stealing them. A 2015 study found that poaching is the top threat to cactuses. “Entire populations of cactus have been wiped out almost overnight,” Kim McCue told TFK. She is a director at the Desert Botanical Garden, in Arizona. “People go in and pluck them all out.”

Poachers can sell a saguaro for $1,000 or more. “This is the most iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert,” Richard Wiedhopf told TFK. He is president of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society. “People want saguaros in their yard. They are willing to pay a lot of money to have one.”

Saguaro cactuses grow tall. They are found only in the Sonoran Desert.

WEST ROCK/GETTY IMAGES. SOURCES: SCIENCE FRIDAY; ARIZONA DESERT MUSEUM ; WWF

Saving the Saguaro

All cactuses in Arizona are protected. It is illegal to remove one from public land without a permit. Authorities at Saguaro National Park are fighting poachers. They are using microchips. Chips have been placed in more than 1,000 saguaros there.

Not all cactuses taken from the wild are dug up illegally. Nurseries can rescue plants that grow in the way of new roads and buildings. These cactuses can be sold if they have a salvage tag.

Golden barrel cactuses are rescued by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, in Arizona.

JOHN DURHAM

Conservationists are fighting to save cactuses. Why? Cactuses are an important part of desert culture. Creatures live in and around them. Humans and animals feast on their fruits. “If you lose the cactus, you’re going to lose other things too,” McCue says. “Cactuses help hold the desert together.”

Get to Know the Saguaro

See the hole in the saguaro? It was made by a bird. Birds nest inside.

ARTERRA/GETTY IMAGES

  • A saguaro cactus can live 200 years.

  • Saguaro cactuses can grow to be 60 feet tall. That’s taller than a five-story building!

  • A fully grown saguaro can hold 200 gallons of water.