To catch a cactus thief: national parks fight a thorny problem

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suguaro nf

In the US alone, sales of cacti and succulents surged 64% between 2012 and 2017; a market that is now estimated to be worth tens of millions. But rising demand has met a thorny problem: cacti are extremely slow-growing, with some species taking decades to grow from seed to full maturity. Hence, many opt for the shortcut: pulling them right out of the ground.

In the last decade, cacti have exploded in popularity, becoming a mainstay of hipster decor around the world – from the homes of China’s growing middle class and the meticulous cactus gardens in Japan to the fashionable cafes of Europe.

Hipster tastes have fueled a spike in succulent poaching. Now conservationists are finding creative ways to rescue them

To catch a cactus thief: national parks fight a thorny problem

By Annette McGivney in Tucson, Arizona

When most people drive through the Cactus Forest in Saguaro national park, their gazes are fixed skyward. Towering saguaros fill the view on either side of the road, rising 40, even 60ft high, their human-like arms outstretched.

But on a recent December afternoon, Ray O’Neil was focused on the ground. He was looking for holes. As the park’s chief ranger, O’Neil is on constant alert for an unusual menace: cactus poachers. Saguaros aren’t just beautiful to look at; they also fetch a hefty price, up to $100 a foot, on the black market, where they are enormously popular with landscapers.

The national park is not alone. Across the south-west, cacti are being stolen from public lands in increasing numbers. From soaring saguaros to tiny, rare species favored as indoor house plants, the booming global demand for cacti is driving a shadowy, underground trade that’s difficult to police. Moreover, experts say, such trends risk destroying sensitive species forever.

In Saguaro national park, the situation became so grave it prompted a bold solution. In a scheme that made headlines, park workers began inserting microchips the size of pencil tips into cactus trunks, which could be scanned with an electronic reader. While the effort has so far proven effective in thwarting thieves, it has been a rare bright spot in a problem that remains pervasive yet intractable. More than a dozen cactus experts interviewed for this story – government botanists, presidents of regional cactus clubs and respected south-west nursery operators – shared tales of crimes that go largely unprosecuted, fueled by unregulated international trade on the internet.

‘If you steal a cactus, we will find you’

Samuel Arnberger was among the first rangers to insert the RFID chips into the saguaros when the program started.

Back at Saguaro national park, the Guardian joined park staff to see the chipping scheme in action. While O’Neil carried a sidearm, park biologist Don Swann packed a yellow chip insertion device resembling a staple gun. With a tiny chip loaded in the barrel, he held the gun flush to a saguaro trunk.

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