The cactus poachers of Phoenix who are ruining the Arizona desert

The rough hands of a smuggler move quickly in the chill night air. He’ll sacrifice a few lives if it improves his speed. After all, he needs to get away undetected before the light reveals his crime and the heat of the Arizona desert threatens to burn his skin.

His prize, which can command thousands of dollars on the black market, has been classified as one of the top five most endangered organisms on the planet by the The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But poachers like him, most commonly from Europe and Asia, will risk hefty fines, deportation and even imprisonment to catch and sell the rarest specimens. Their stolen trophies can’t even call out in protest – for a cactus has no voice.

According to the IUCN, 31 per cent of cactus species are currently critically threatened with extinction, making them more endangered than mammals and birds. At the sprawling Desert Botanical Gardens, just 15 minutes from downtown Phoenix, Arizona, more than 50,000 cactus and succulent plants are housed over 140 acres of Sonoran desert. Here in the greenhouses, labs, herbarium and public gardens, rare and endangered cacti species are nursed back to health, cultivated, propagated, catalogued, and saved.

“It’s big money – there is a huge black market for cacti, like anything else that is collectable,” director of research, Kimberlie A. McCue, PhD says as she tours me around the facility along with Steven Blackwell, the conservation collections manager.

The prickly appearance of cacti may lead some people to care less about their plight but this illegal trade is just as morally bankrupt as poaching elephants for their tusks. In fact, Kimberlie explains, “Cacti are protected under the same international treaty as elephants. It’s illegal to move these plants unless you have the proper documents.”

Law enforcement agencies have to act quickly to keep up with the antics of thieves and are often a few steps behind. As soon as word gets out that a rare species of cactus has been found, the area is quickly raided. “They’ll just disappear, like that,” Kimberlie says, snapping her fingers.

Steven is responsible for habitat restoration and species reintroduction; his work aims to reverse some of the damage wreaked by the poachers. He takes rare plants and uses them to propagate other plants, creating the garden’s seed bank, which he manages. If species are ravaged in the wild the genetic diversity is preserved so long as they…

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