Catching Cactus Crooks

low-lying cactus in the dirt
Living rock cactus, found in the Chihuahuan Desert of the southwestern United
States and northern Mexico, is prized by poachers. Photo by Al Barrus/USFWS

When someone mentions smuggling and the Southwest, cactus probably doesn’t pop to mind. However, black market cactus trade is a problem, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners are on it.

After years of investigation, four cactus traffickers recently were sentenced for their role in the illegal harvest, sale and/or transportation of living rock, a spineless cactus found only in the Big Bend region of southwestern Texas and northeastern Mexico.

The defendants were sentenced to a total of nine years of probation and one year of unsupervised probation. They also were ordered to pay $118,804 in fines and restitution, and forfeit 17 firearms. There are more defendants in the ongoing case.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents, Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Unit, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Sul Ross State University are collaborating on the years-long effort to stop the illegal harvest of living rock cactus.

person with rows of cacti in pots
Karen Little, a Sul Ross State University botanist, helps law enforcement officers identify
plants and cares for seized living rock cactus. Photo by Al Barrus/USFWS

A Thornless, Peyote-Like Plant

Living rock cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) is a close cousin to peyote. It has no thorns, grows close to the earth and is soft to the touch.

“During dry periods the stems shrink and become even less visible, merging with the ground, hence the common name of living rock cactus. The fissuratus species inhabits arid, rocky, low elevation regions of the Chihuahuan Desert and is slow growing, but eventually, after several decades, becomes around 5 inches in diameter,” says AmericanSouthwest.net. “Brightly colored flowers emerge from a woolly mass at the top of the plant in fall or early winter, the only time when the cactus is easy to locate. The stem is grey, green or brown in color, becoming partly yellow with age.”

Living rock cactus is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) but not under the Endangered Species Act. The CITES protection makes it a felony to export the wild plant outside United States.

Demand Comes From Abroad

While the living rock may be acquired legally from private land for sale in the United States, the black market comes from collectors, mostly in Europe and Asia, who want an exotic plant that has gone through decades of rain, dust and sun to give it a rugged, unique look. Among collectors, there’s even a premium placed on endangered cactuses harvested from national parks, with some individual plants selling in five figures.

“Never in a million years did I expect to investigate cactus smuggling as a federal officer,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Eric Jumper, lead agent for the case who is based in San Antonio, Texas. “Once I started working the case, though, I found it both very interesting and absolutely shocking: reading the correspondences between supplier and buyer, and learning how insatiable their desire is to get these plants. They will do whatever they can, and pay whatever they can. And they don’t just want one cactus. They want as many as they can get.”

This isn’t the first case where federal agents have investigated cactus poachers. Years ago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Albert Gonzales, stationed in El Paso, Texas, investigated collectors from eastern Europe who illegally harvested cactuses from national parks. While previous cases typically dealt with European tourists collecting as a hobby, the living rock cactus case focuses more on opportunistic poachers who are essentially mining the small, plushy, slow-growing cactus from its natural habitat.

pots of cacti
Sul Ross State University has the best facilities in the Big Bend region to care for
native plants, including seized living rock cacti. Photo by Al Barrus/USFWS

Partnerships and Education Are Vital

The Big Bend region of Texas is isolated, so partnerships between law enforcement officers and other experts are crucial.

Karen Little is a botanist and the environmental laboratory manager for specialty gardens and greenhouses at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. With a population of 6,000, Alpine is the largest town in the Big Bend area. Federal agencies requested support from Sul Ross State because it has the best facilities in the region to care for native plants. Little helps Jumper with plant identification and cares for the seized living rock.

“Sul Ross is happy to assist Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and Homeland Security,” says Little. “Law enforcement is the front line in protecting our unique part of the world while we attempt to educate the public about the long-term harm of poaching.”

Sometimes, poachers take whole populations of living rock, which can wipe out genetic lines, leave the cacti vulnerable to disease, and threaten entire ecosystems, Little says. If a whole population is poached, the living rock might never come back in the area, and these cacti take an incredibly long time to grow. Larger plants could be a century old.

“My job is to find homes for [seized] living rock, since they can never be sold,” Little says. “I’ve been concentrating on getting them repatriated into their native area on private property. The reason most of them go to private property is because the national park and Big Bend Ranch State Park don’t want to take plants if they don’t know where they came from. One thread that runs through this: No poachers confess where they took cacti from, which means they either got them on the state park, national park or private property without permission. Public land managers don’t want to mess with the genetics by reintroducing cacti from another area, so many of the plants probably can’t go back to where they come from.”

The good news is that the cultural shift is happening among the cactus aficionados. Many succulent fanciers are aware of the toll that unethical harvesting takes on wild populations, and part of their passion is preserving native ecosystems. They perform outreach and education when presented with an opportunity.

“It’s important to me because these are plants that are indigenous to North America and only North America. It’s our job to preserve these plants, and if we don’t preserve them here they won’t exist,” said special agent Jumper. “And I don’t appreciate people who make money off our natural resources without any concern for the law.”

Article by Al_Barrus@fws.gov, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

More about the effort to stop the illegal harvest of living rock cactus is at https://www.fws.gov/southwest/stories/2019/Rockcactus.html.

Texans who want to adopt a living rock can learn more on the Sul Ross State University Plant Resources Center Facebook page.

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