The sun goes down and a truck pulls up to a giant saguaro (sa-wah-ro) in the Sonoran Desert. Poachers wearing protective gloves step out. They dig up the cactus, wrap it in a carpet, and drive away.
Cactuses are vanishing from their desert habitats, and humans are the cause. According to the 2015 Global Cactus Assessment, poaching is the top threat to cactus species worldwide. “Entire populations of cactus have been wiped out almost overnight,” Kim McCue, a director at Arizona’s Desert Botanical Garden, told TFK. “Rare cactuses and large cactuses are more valuable,” McCue says, “so they’re more likely to be poached.” A saguaro can be sold illegally for $1,000 or more.
The saguaro is the largest cactus species in the U.S. It can weigh up to 4,800 pounds and stand 60 feet tall. It takes the prickly plant about 70 years to begin growing arms and producing blooms. “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.”
Saguaros are just one of many cactus species that poachers seek out. “Smaller species of cactus are beautiful when they flower and easy to move around,” McCue says. “They appeal to cactus collectors.”
TAG TEAM Conservationists label golden barrel cactuses with salvage tags.
All cactuses in Arizona are protected. It is illegal to remove one from public land without a permit. Authorities at Saguaro National Park are using microchips to fight poaching. The chips have been implanted in more than 1,000 saguaros across the 92,000-acre park. Concerned citizens also keep a close watch. “Everybody knows that there are poachers here,” Wiedhopf says. “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.”
But not all cactuses taken from the wild are dug up illegally. Nurseries can purchase salvage tags. That lets them rescue and sell plants that are sprouting up in the way of new homes or other buildings. Cactuses are symbols of desert culture. And they play an important role in the desert’s ecosystem.
Cactus wrens and elf owls nest in saguaros, for instance. Woodpeckers get water from them. Various desert squirrels eat 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.”