Cactus Rustling Threatens Chihuahuan Desert

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2003 (ENS) - A booming trade in wild cactus threatens to overwhelm populations of some Chihuahuan Desert species, a new study warns. The report released today suggests that demand for desert landscaping plants may soon surpass the desert's natural supply, and leads to renewed calls for better regulation of trade in all cactus species.


This barrel cactus is among the most sought after cacti for landscaping. (All photos courtesy World Wildlife Fund)
Cacti are part of a family of plants known as succulents, that has evolved special traits for surviving the temperature extremes and scare water of desert environments. These same traits make the plants very attractive to landscapers, particularly in areas of the southwestern U.S.

But the environmentally friendly choice of water conserving species in southwestern cities may be creating a new environmental problem: a shortage of cacti in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Some of the world's rarest cacti grow in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the United States. Demand for the rarest specimens has created a multimillion dollar industry and led to the heavy and often illegal harvest of desirable species, according to the new report from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

"If we don't reduce the demand for wild plants, especially cacti, from the Chihuahuan Desert, we run the risk of jeopardizing populations and losing species," said Christopher Robbins, a botanist with TRAFFIC and co-author of the report, "Prickly Trade: Trade and Conservation of Chihuahuan Desert Cacti."


An Organ Mountain pincushion cactus finds a toe hold in a rocky landscape.
"A whole range of desert dwellers - from hummingbirds to mountain lions - rely on desert plants for food or shelter," Robbins added. "So in some situations, removing the cactus can be as disruptive to the ecosystem as clearcutting a forest."

The report, the largest ever analysis of trade in Chihuahuan plants, finds that unsustainable trade could endanger certain cactus populations, along with the species that depend upon them, if measures are not taken to regulate harvesting.

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biologically rich deserts in the world, rivaled only by the Namib-Karoo of Africa and the Great Sandy Desert of Australia. The area includes fish, reptiles and plants found nowhere else.


The Organ Mountain pincushion is classified as vulnerable across its Chihuahuan Desert range.
The desert is also home to almost a quarter of the 1,500 cactus species known to science, including many species found nowhere else.

Trade in cacti is fueled by two forces: demand for cactus to use in landscaping and demand by "cactophiles" - collectors who favor rare and newly discovered species. Europe and Japan have become popular destinations for smuggled plants and seeds from rare and valuable Chihuahuan cacti.

These include cacti so endangered that all international commercial trade in them is banned, such as "living rock cactus" (Ariocarpus retusus) and Aztec cactus (Aztekium ritteri). The largest consumers of Chihuahuan Desert cacti are, in order, the United States, England, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Italy and Canada.


A variety of nursery grown cacti are prepared for sale. (Photo WWF-Canon/Jo Benn)
Landscaping using drought tolerant plants, known as xeriscaping, is booming in cities like Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus and saguaro cactus are the most popular species used, and many suppliers find it easier and faster to dig up mature plants in the wild than propagate them in nurseries.

Between 1998 and June 2001, for example, almost 100,000 succulents worth an estimated $3 million were shipped from Texas to Arizona alone. These included both cacti harvested from the wild in Texas, and illegal imports from Mexico.

Thousands of cacti are smuggled from Mexico and sold under false documentation each year. Mexico contains about 85 percent of the Chihuahuan Desert and harbors the richest diversity of rare, endemic and recently discovered cactus species.

The report notes that many succulents have been imported illegally into Texas from Mexico and then sold in other states as legally collected plants, with Texas agricultural permits.


The slow growing saguaro cactus, a desert icon and common target of cactus rustlers, is easier to steal than to grow.
Many consumers and tourists are unaware they may be breaking the law when they purchase cacti. According to the report, Mexican authorities seized almost 800 cactus specimens from travelers entering or passing through the U.S. from Mexico in 1998 alone.

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. The three primary markets for ornamental cacti produced in the U.S. are nurseries, supermarkets and private collectors.

"The good news from our research is that these desert plants have economic value," Robbins said. "Landowners who might see cactus as pests ought to consider managing them as a crop, rather than viewing them as a nuisance that must be eradicated."

So far, the report concludes, none of the species identified in U.S. trade by TRAFFIC faces imminent extinction, with the possible exception of one species in Texas. But because the trade is already so massive, and is likely to continue to grow, the report's authors urge local governments, landowners, garden clubs, and cactus traders to work together with conservation groups to support the long term sustainability of the cactus market.

The report argues that cactus farming, sustainable harvest in the wild, and complete protection for some species must all be boosted to reduce the impact on the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. WWF has begun work already to establish a community based nursery industry for growing desert plants.

golden barrel

A crop of golden barrel cactus at a nursery in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo WWF-Canon/Jennifer Atchley)
The program would also promote nature based tourism in west Texas, a biologically rich region with high unemployment.

"This report has spurred WWF to act," said Jennifer Montoya of WWF. "We strongly believe that the rise in xeriscaping - a positive development - is an opportunity that can help the environment and the struggling economies of rural parts of the Chihuahuan Desert."