Cactus rustling — a prickly trade threatening the Chihuahuan Desert | WWF
Cactus rustling — a prickly trade threatening the Chihuahuan Desert

Posted on 20 January 2003

Cactus smuggling in the Mexican-US Chihuahuan Desert is big business, threatening the survival of these rare and unique plants.
A new kind of rustler is prowling the West these days, making off with easy targets in the desert under the cover of darkness. But these rustlers aren’t interested in stealing cattle — they seek cactus. Cactus rustling is big business in the southwest United States, fueled by consumer demand for low-maintenance, drought-loving succulents to use for landscaping. And cactus collectors — plant lovers known as “cactophiles" — fuel the poaching of rare and hard-to-find specimens. That’s on top of the perfectly legal, but poorly regulated, harvesting of wild plants on public and private property throughout the region. "This is leading to depletion of some cactus species in the Chihuahuan Desert, which threatens certain populations," says Christopher Robbins, a botanist at TRAFFIC who has spent two years studying the Chihuahuan plant trade and the author of a new report on the issue. The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world, rivaled only by the Namib-Karoo of southern Africa and the Great Sandy Desert of Australia. Extending across some 647,000km2 from southeast Arizona across New Mexico and west Texas in the US and southwards across almost 25 per cent of Mexico, this ecoregion is home to almost a quarter of the 1,500 cactus species known to science. It is also home to more mammal species than Yellowstone National Park, and sustains some of the last remaining populations of Mexican prairie dogs, wild American bison, and pronghorn antelope. The area also includes fish, reptiles, and plants that are found nowhere else on Earth. Although desired by cactophiles, cacti are often seen as nuisance plants by ranchers and landowners, who are all too happy for someone to pay a few dollars to dig up and remove the plants. And many consumers and tourists are unaware they may be breaking the law when they purchase cactus on private land or try to export live plants from Mexico, which has strict rules on collecting wild plants. The United States ranks among the world’s largest cactus producers and markets, with the highest concentration of growers and harvesters located in the southwest of the country. The three primary markets for ornamental cacti produced in the US are nurseries, supermarkets, and private collectors. The largest consumers of Chihuahuan Desert cacti are, in order, the United States, England, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Italy, and Canada. But cacti and other desert plants are a crucial part of the desert ecosystem. Removing too many deprives desert dwellers — such as mountain lions, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and bats — of food and shelter. Many people also rely on desert plants for medicinal use, such as a traditional Mexican arthritis treatment made from cactus. “In some parts of the desert where cactus are the dominant species, digging up these plants can be as ecologically disruptive as clearcutting a forest,” says Christopher Robbins. Wild harvesting of desert plants is a multimillion-dollar-a-year business. One of the forces driving the harvest — both legal and illegal — of wild cactus and other succulents stems from a fairly new landscaping push in desert cities. With water scarce in many booming population centers, property owners are urged to landscape with drought-tolerant and low-water plants, rather than grow lush, non-native lawns that require excessive amounts of water. City leaders in arid places like Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, promote more sustainable landscaping using native plants, known as “xeriscaping”. Barrel cactus, hedgehog cactus, prickly pear cactus, and saguaro cactus are the most popular arid species used in landscaping. Yucca, agave, and ocotillo are some of the other desert plants sought for their landscaping value. "Xeriscaping is a positive trend that doesn’t need to endanger desert cactus," says Jennifer Montoya, head of WWF’s Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion office in New Mexico. "Growing plants from seed in nurseries, rather than removing them from the desert is a win-win situation." Such projects, including one that WWF is planning to start in economically depressed west Texas, provide income to local communities and sustainably harvested plants for homeowners. Cactus collectors are another market driving unsustainable and often illegal harvesting of Chihuahuan Desert plants. 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. Rare cacti, espcially those found in the Mexican part of the desert, can fetch thousands of dollars in international trade. Rare cactus seeds can sell in Europe for US$7.50 per seed. This high value gives smugglers a big incentive to remove plants from the Chihuahuan Desert. "The Chihuahuan Desert is not well-known, even by the people who live here," says Hector Arias, ecoregional coordinator at WWF Mexico. Nor is it well protected. Some 80 per cent of the desert is in Mexico, but of this, only about 1.8 per cent is under some sort of protection. The situation is a littler better in the US, where some 60 per cent of the desert is under some sort of protection scheme. Although the penalties for smugglers are severe — up to l0 years in jail and a US$250,000 fine — this lack of protection, together with the remoteness of many parts of the Chihuahuan Desert, makes finding smuggled species a tricky job. But the news is not all bad. The new report from TRAFFIC indicates that the economic value of Chihuahuan Desert cacti could actually help save them. "Landowners who might see cactus as pests ought to consider managing them as a crop, rather than view them as a pest to eradicate," says Christopher Robbins. The report recommends monitoring the cactus trade better, strengthening protection for species under the most pressure, and developing community-based programmes to harvest common species and commercially cultivate slow-growing species. Such initiatives will help safeguard the unique flora of the Chihuahuan Desert. (958 words) * Jan Vertefeuille is Senior Communications Officer at WWF-US and TRAFFIC North America. Further information: TRAFFIC report: Prickly trade: Trade and Conservation of Chihuahuan Desert Cacti TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of WWF and IUCN – the World Conservation Union and works in close co-operation with the CITES Secretariat. The new report released by TRAFFIC, Prickly Trade: Trade and Conservation of Chihuahuan Desert Cacti, is the largest-ever analysis of trade in Chihuahuan Desert cacti. The report found that unsustainable trade could endanger certain populations of cacti if measures are not taken to regulated their harvesting, and makes a number of recommendations to address the problem. WWF's work in the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion The Chihuahuan Desert is one of WWF's Global 200 ecoregions — a science-based global ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats and the regions on which WWF concentrates its efforts. WWF's work in this ecoregion includes partnering with local communities to study the hydrology of the springs of Cuatrociénegas and to protect the ponds, and contributing to efforts to reintroduce the critically endangered Mexican wolf. In 1997, WWF convened a meeting of US and Mexican biologists to create the first-ever comprehensive conservation assessment of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. A new project, prompted by the findings of the TRAFFIC report, is planned to establish a community-based nursery industry to grow native desert plants with seeds harvested from the wild. The project will also promote nature-based tourism in Texas, a biologically rich region with high unemployment.
Octillo cactus (Fouquieria splendens), Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.
© WWF / Jo Benn
Christopher Robbins, botanist at TRAFFIC.
© WWF / Jo Benn