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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cactus Thieves

Air Date: Week of

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From member station KJZZ in Phoenix Mark Brody reports on the upswing in the pilfering of cacti. The plants are being uprooted and sold on the black market in the drought hit states of the southwest.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Coming up: a coffee table book designed to stimulate conversations about conversations.

But first, saguaro, those tall cacti with branching, upraised arms that, from a distance, look like bandits surrendering to the sheriff after a botched bank robbery. The prickly giants are symbols of the Southwest. And as the region’s population grows, communities are pressing their residents to use cacti and other native, drought-tolerant landscaping to conserve water.

But, as Mark Brodie, of member station KJZZ in Phoenix explains, this increased demand has put a lot of heat on the source of supply.

MCGINNIS: Well, they will just simply go by and they will back into it. They will put their cradle onto it, they will strap the cradle to it. They will dig out the bottom, the shallow hole around the roots and just cut out the roots.

BRODIE: You wouldn’t think it would be so easy, but Jim McGinnis says it really is. Arizona’s top cactus cop says one person can dig up and haul off a cactus in about a half an hour, with the help of a special brace or cradle. And we’re not talking about a little barrel cactus here. These are saguaros, up to 15 feet or taller, weighing upwards of 600 pounds. And don’t forget the needles.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas has lost almost 100,000 of varied succulents that grow there. Fish and Wildlife agents say some valleys in the Southwest may soon not have any cacti at all.

Jim McGinnis is the Special Investigations supervisor for the State Department of Agriculture. He says cacti are stolen out of the desert every day.

MCGINNIS: There was a federal study done and they are saying it’s about $20 million dollars a year market, on the black market, for saguaros around this area, around the country. There are individuals that will get a permit to legally remove plants. They will send their workers out, and the workers go, or are instructed to go in a different area. And once they are on the highway, it’s really hard to say where they got the plants from.

BRODIE: And, McGinnis says, it’s also very difficult to find out where stolen plants end up, and who is taking them. But he does have a few CSI tricks up his sleeve.

MCGINNIS: You try to locate any evidence that you can. Nine times out of ten there is no evidence left. I mean, it’s just a hole. If we suspect, however, that a certain saguaro that showed up somewhere, and it was suspect that it came from this particular hole, we can do root sampling to see if that saguaro came from this hole.

BRODIE: Those holes aren’t just reminders of where cacti used to stand. Diane Barker with the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix says the entire ecosystem is affected when plants are stolen out of the wild.

BARKER: For one thing, the population of that plant is being decreased. Not only of that plant, but it will not have the ability to bloom and produce seed for future plants of that same species to be germinated. So, it not only affects the plant life, but it also affects the animal life, as well.

BRODIE: That is because animals, from birds to coyotes, rely on cacti for water and shade. Under Arizona’s native plant law, stealing plants that are valued at more than $500 dollars is a felony. While most of the attention has focused on cacti stolen out of the desert, more urban sites have been hit, as well.


ORAVETZ: That gate, over here, the chain on that back gate was cut. The cut link was laying down on the ground. The gate was open. You can see that one piece of pottery sitting outside…

BRODIE: Jim Oravetz is surveying the damage at Summer Winds Nursery in Phoenix. His nurseries have just been broken into for the sixteenth time since the beginning of the year. Oravetz is the loss prevention manager for the nursery’s four shops in the area. He says thieves have taken an average of $10,000 worth of merchandise from shops around the area. Often, it’s cacti and other succulents.

ORAVETZ: If it was somebody breaking under the property to steal something for a swap meet, they would just break in, grab what they could and go. But in many of the instances here, particular items have been selected. So that tells me, one, there is an order been placed for the stuff, or they know where they can unload this stuff.

BRODIE: Oravetz is working with other nurseries in the area to figure out where their plants are being unloaded. The thieves are going to great lengths to get their material, cutting phone lines and poisoning guard dogs.

Increased population is putting a strain on the West’s water supply. Jim McGinnis says the demand for desert plants has created not only a thriving legit market, but a black market, as well.

MCGINNIS: You know, with the drought tolerant plants, when you have a lot of building going on, people want the drought tolerant plants. And they are looking for a saguaro or other cactus. And so people realize that if there is a market for it, it is going to be exploited somehow.

BRODIE: To control the exploitation in Nevada, the National Park Service has gone so far as to implant computer chips in some barrel cacti. That will allow officials to find out if they are being stolen from the Lake Mead area. Officials are confident the chips can stop cactus rustling at the park, but cactus cop Jim McGinnis is less optimistic about the open desert. He compares cactus theft to auto theft, saying as long as there is a market for plants, or parts, people will continue to steal both.

For Living on Earth, I’m Mark Brodie in Phoenix.

[MUSIC: Combustile Edition “Alright, Already” Schizophonic! Sub Pop (1996)]



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