Cactus Smugglers Threatening Desert Ecosystems

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2003

The turkey vulture is not the only opportunist circling in the roasting sun of the Chihuahuan desert for valuable quarry. A new report reveals cactus smugglers are threatening many of the 345 cacti species found in the 250,000 square miles (647,500 square kilometers) of the desert. This area sprawls across the southwest United States from Texas to Arizona, and includes much of northern Mexico.

The report was recently released by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

According to the report, 200 cacti species—including the living rock, eagle claw, Texas barrel, hedgehog, and prickly pear cacti—could be at risk if measures aren't taken to regulate harvesting in and near protected areas.

"If we don't reduce the demand…we run the risk of destabilizing populations and losing species," said report co-author Christopher S. Robbins, of Biota Consulting in Portland, Oregon. "Desert dwellers from humming birds to mountain lions rely on desert plants for food or shelter—removing the cactus can be as disruptive to the ecosystem as clearcutting a forest," he said. Robbins is an advisor to TRAFFIC North America at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington D.C.

Environmentally sensitive landscaping in arid zones—xeriscaping—advocates the use of cacti and succulents to conserve scarce water resources. Xeriscaping occurs in dry cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada. Shipment of ornamental cacti to consumers elsewhere also contributes to the wild cacti decline.

Biologically Diverse

The Chihuahuan desert is one of the world's most biologically diverse and threatened arid regions, supporting 23 percent of the world's known 1,500 cactus species. Cacti and related succulent plants evolved exclusively in the Americas, and occupy a wide range of arid and moderately humid habitats from Canada to Patagonia.

The Chihuahuan Desert is home to more mammals than Yellowstone National Park, including bison, antelope, bats, mountain lions and prairie dogs. Africa's Namib Karoo and Australia's Great Sandy Desert closely rival the Chihuahuan desert in terms of species variety.

Birds, insects and small mammals depend on cacti and succulents as a source of food. For example, the Ocotillo plant provides essential nectar for migrating hummingbirds travelling from Mexico to North America during spring.

Despite their importance in the ecosystem, "[Cacti] have been commercially harvested from this region at least since the 1940s," said A. Michael Powell, a biologist at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. The demand for cacti has increased in recent years, along with other large desert-adapted plants such as yuccas, which have been "harvested by the thousands," he said.

The most serious threats to cacti are the habitat loss of land used for grazing and plant collection for both domestic and international trade. A growing body of cactus lovers—known as catophiles—create a multi-million dollar industry, states the report. They demand cacti species that are rare or new to science. Stores and private collectors in the United States absorb the majority of harvested cacti.

Europe and Japan have recently become common destinations for smuggled plants and seeds. Top destinations include the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden. In 1998, Mexican authorities impounded more than 800 cactus specimens from travelers entering the United States from Mexico, according to the report.

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