Cactuses at Risk

April 27, 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 to a giant saguaro (sa-wah-ro) cactus. Poachers step out. They are wearing protective gloves. They dig up the cactus and wrap it in a carpet. Then they drive away.

Cactuses are vanishing from deserts, and humans are the cause. The 2015 Global Cactus Assessment found that poaching is the top threat to cactus species worldwide. “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.

Saguaros are just one of many cactus species that appeal to poachers and collectors. It takes the green giant about 70 years to begin growing arms and producing blooms. Rustlers can sell one illegally 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, in Arizona. “People want saguaros in their yard. They are willing to pay a lot of money to have one.”

TAG TEAM Conservationists label golden barrel cactuses with salvage tags.

JOHN DURHAM

Saving the Saguaro

All cactuses in Arizona are protected. It is illegal to remove a cactus from public land without a permit. Authorities at Saguaro National Park are fighting poachers. They are using microchips. The chips have been put into more than 1,000 saguaros there. Concerned citizens are also keeping watch. “If we see somebody that doesn’t look right with a big saguaro in the back of their truck, the first thing we do is call the police,” Wiedhopf says.

Not all cactuses taken from the wild are poached. Nurseries can purchase salvage tags. That lets them rescue and sell plants growing in the way of new roads and buildings.

Cactuses are symbols of desert culture. They are important for desert life. For instance, cactus wrens nest in saguaros. So do elf owls. Woodpeckers get water from the plants. Various desert squirrels feast on cactus fruits and flowers. “If you lose the cactus, you’re going to lose other things too,” McCue says. “Cactuses help hold the desert together.