Cactus poaching, legal harvesting a growing threat to Chihuahuan Desert cacti

Posted on 20 January 2003

A new study shows that demand for wild cactus and rare plants many soon surpass supply in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the US.
Gland, Switzerland – Demand for wild cactus and rare plants by landscapers and plant collectors may soon surpass supply in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the United States, according to a new study from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network and joint programme of WWF and IUCN*.

The study, the largest-ever analysis of trade in Chihuahuan Desert cactus, found that unsustainable trade could endanger certain populations of cacti if measures are not taken to regulate their harvesting.

The Chihuahuan Desert is home to almost a quarter of the 1,500 cactus species known to science, and a booming desert landscaping trend, combined with poor regulation of legal plant harvesting, is putting pressure on many species. Use of cactus for low-water landscaping and demand for rare and newly discovered specimens by “cactophiles” is resulting in the heavy and illegal harvest of desirable species, which is likely a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry. "If we don’t reduce the demand for wild plants, especially cacti, from the Chihuahuan Desert, we run the risk of destabilizing populations and losing species," said Christopher Robbins, a botanist with TRAFFIC and author of the report Prickly Trade: Trade and Conservation of Chihuahuan Desert Cacti.

"A whole range of desert dwellers — from hummingbirds to mountain lions — rely on desert plants for food or shelter. So in some situations, removing the cactus can be as disruptive to the ecosystem as clearcutting a forest."

In recent years, Europe and Japan have been popular destinations for smuggled plants, seeds and fruits of rare and valuable cacti originating from the US and Mexico. The UK is the second largest market after the US for Chihuahuan Desert Species, followed by Germany, Sweden and Spain, Mexico, Italy, and Canada. Nearly 200 species of Chihuahuan Desert cactus were identified on the UK market alone.

Many consumers and tourists are unaware they may be breaking the law when they collect, purchase or export cactus from countries that restrict these activities. According to the report, Mexican authorities seized nearly 800 cactus specimens from travelers entering or passing through the US from Mexico in 1998. The report recommends better monitoring of the cactus trade, strengthening protection for the species that are under the most pressure from exploitation and developing community-based programs to harvest common species and commercially cultivate slow-growing species.

The report has led WWF to begin work on a programme to establish a community-based nursery industry to grow native desert plants with seeds harvested from the wild. The programme would also promote nature-based tourism in west Texas, a biologically rich region with high unemployment.

"The good news from our research is that these desert plants have economic value. Landowners who might see cactus as pests ought to consider managing them as a crop, rather than view them as a pest to eradicate," Christopher Robbins added.

For further information:

Kyla Evans
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9550

Jan Vertefeuille
Tel: +1 202 861 8362

Majia Sirola
TRAFFIC International
Tel: +44 1223 277 427

*IUCN - The World Conservation Union
Nursery-grown Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), Tucson, Arizona, US.
© WWF / Jo Benn