While we have amateur ornithologists, herpetologists, mycologists, and entomologists who contribute to this blog, we haven’t had many botanists around, and therefore we learned something new today about cacti: they’re a group of plants that’s only present in the Americas, apart from one species that grows in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. We also read some bad news from a Cool Green Science blog post by Christine Peterson, which is that 31% of cacti species have a threatened status, a terribly high proportion. Peterson writes,
The smugglers carried their tiny prizes tucked away in suitcases of jalapeños and dirty laundry. The spicy fruit was supposed to deflect inspections. Perhaps they thought the dirty laundry would do the same. Another rare item sat nestled in a new box of Uncle Ben’s Rice. Russians had a hard time finding Uncle Ben’s Rice back home, says Nicholas Chavez, Special Agent in charge of the Southwest Region for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
From the Los Angeles airport, the six Russian men weren’t carrying precious art or poached ivory. They were smuggling cacti stolen from National Parks and Indian Reservations. Some of the cacti they had were labeled appendix two, which means they aren’t currently “threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade is closely controlled,” according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The men had reportedly been looking for the rarest and most endangered plants, the appendix one cacti, but ultimately couldn’t find them despite GPS coordinates pinpointing exact locations.
“They knew they were there before,” Chavez says. “It means they collected or over collected it, and the collectors have taken it completely out of the wild.”
The case, which moved partially through federal courts in Los Angeles in 2015, and is still ongoing today, helps illuminate a greater problem with North America’s public lands, flora and fauna.
A recent study showed more than 30 percent of the world’s cacti are threatened or endangered, and many of those because of illegal collecting.
Agents like Chavez and others in North America do what they can to prevent, or catch, the smugglers, but it’s a struggle in the vast expanse of the uninhabited southwestern U.S.
“I think when you look at the geography of the area and the amount of resources we have, every day is an uphill battle,” Chavez says. “Some of these cacti are in the middle of nowhere. If they’re in National Parks, we do the investigation. The National Parks have a lot of things to take care of and cacti poaching is one of them, but do you have the resources to patrol the areas? It’s tough.”
Before unravelling the tale of Russian cacti smugglers, here is a quick lesson on cacti botany. To start, cacti are only native to North and South America (with the exception of one species found in South Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka). And contrary to popular belief, they grow across the continent from east to west, as far north as Canada and down to Argentina. The bulk of them do grow in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, but unlikely places like Florida, Cuba and Ontario host their own unique species.
The world’s cacti experts have categorized about 1,500 various species, though more are still being discovered, says Barbara Goettsch, a Mexican scientist who is co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group.
She studies cacti with such passion her pseudonym is “greatcactus.”
Goettsch is also the lead author on a recent paper, “High proportion of cactus species threatened with extinction,” published in the journal Nature Plants. The paper details how 31 percent of the world’s cacti are currently threatened with extinction.
Read the rest of the article in The Nature Conservancy’s blog here.