Cactus poaching is actually a thing. And it might be putting some plants at risk of extinction, expert says

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The Current12:29How cactus poaching threatens to wipe out entire species

Rare species of cactus could be driven to extinction by poachers who steal them from South America, and ship them to collectors around the world, says a conservation expert.

“They grow very slowly, some of them take tens to hundreds of years to reach the adult size,” said Barbara Goettsch, co-chair of the cactus and succulent plants specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

That means they also reproduce very slowly, she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

“So if you take adult plants out of these very small and slow-growing populations, basically the probability of the long-term survival of the species is diminished or decreased greatly,” she said.

“In many cases, it can be doomed for extinction.”

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Most cacti and succulents require government permits to be traded internationally, with outright bans on some rare species. But through illegal trading, the plants can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on collector appetite and the rarity of the species. 

In Italy last year, police seized more than 1,000 rare and illegally traded cacti as part of Operation Atacama. IUCN estimated the plants could have sold for up to $1,500 US each, putting the total value at over $1.5 million US. 

Most were seized in a single bust in Feb. 2020, leading to the arrest of a suspected trafficker and an accomplice, according to The Associated Press.

Andrea Cattabriga helped police identify the species they had seized, and told The Current there were “so many rare plants that were just cut away from the desert; it was really sad.”

He said the haul included five plants of very rare species of Copiapoa, a type of flowering cactus. 

“It is maybe existing in the habitat in just 20 or 30 individuals … it's almost extinct,” said Cattabriga, a cactus expert and president of the Association for Biodiversity and Conservation in Bologna, Italy.

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Goettsch and the IUCN helped Cattabriga connect with plant specialists and raise the funds to return the seized plants to Chile. They reached Santiago in April, where they will spend time in quarantine.

But Goettsch said the cacti will not be replanted in the wild, over concerns they would not survive being reintroduced. 

“They will probably be destined to botanical collections in other areas in Chile, botanical gardens or research institutes,” she said.

Collectors drawn to 'quirky' cacti

Social media influencers have given the humble cactus a popularity boost in recent years, aided by the plant's reputation for being hard to kill. 

But Goettsch said most shops only stock cacti legally grown, specifically for sale. If in doubt, she said shoppers should feel free to ask about a plant's origins, and reconsider buying if it's not clear. 

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For specialized collectors, Goettsch said part of what makes them desirable is their esthetic beauty and relative rarity.

“Cacti are some of the most amazing plants, they're really beautiful, quirky, unusual manifestations of nature,” she told Galloway.

The vast majority only grow naturally in small groups, in certain parts of the Americas, she added.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the people that collect these plants illegally, they really know where to look for them — and sometimes they know better the locations than us botanists,” she said.

Historically there has been interest from highly specialized collectors in Europe, like Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands. But Goettsch said there's been a recent rise in interest from collectors in Asia, with buying and selling facilitated in specialist forums online.

Goettsch said protecting the plants from extinction might require some “creative thinking.”

There's an element of greediness, I think … they only see them as objects to be collected.– Barbara Goettsch, cacti conservation specialist

Rather than trying to cut off supply to collectors, conservation experts could explore how to safely remove some of the cacti without damaging the potential population growth, she said.

Then they could “sell them or put them up for auction for those collectors that really, really want them,” but use the proceeds to fund preservation work for the species and their natural habitat, as well as helping the human communities nearby, she said.

She said some collectors have acknowledged the danger, and switched to only buying cacti that are legally propagated for sale. 

“But there's also a lot of collectors that don't really care; they just want the plant,” she said.

“There's an element of greediness, I think … they only see them as objects to be collected instead of these plants being essential and part of a system.”

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Kate Cornick. 

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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