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Natural Awakenings Twin Cities

Cactus Poachers Are Denuding Deserts

Cactus plant


More than 30 percent of the world’s 1,500 or so cactus species are threatened with extinction, and criminal scavengers are primarily to blame. A 2020 seizure by authorities in Italy yielded more than 1,000 of some of the rarest cactuses in the world, valued at more than $1.2 million on the black market. Some were over 100 years old. President of the Association for Biodiversity and Conservation Andrea Cattabriga helps police identify specimens taken from tourists or intercepted in the mail. He says, “Here is an organism that has evolved over millions of years to be able to survive in the harshest conditions you can find on the planet, but that finishes its life in this way, just as an object to be sold.” Trafficking can take a serious toll because many species are highly localized and often extremely slow-growing, thus quite sensitive to over-harvesting.

Cactuses and other succulents have become popular on social media, promoted by indoor plant influencers for their unusual appearance and minimal care requirements. The pandemic has increased their popularity, with shops unable to keep some species in stock. Sales of legally sourced plants could help offset illegal trade, with the proceeds going directly to communities living alongside the plants, creating an incentive to protect them.