Inside the Illegal Cactus Trade

The succulent Dudleya pachyphytum is known as the Cedros Island live-forever. It has also been called the panda bear of plants, on account of being so cute. It has sweet, chubby leaves, is pale, and is powdered as if with confectioner’s sugar, and its shape is most often that of a rose. D. pachyphytum grows slowly, as succulents generally do, and many specimens would fit in your coat pocket. They look like they belong in a Miyazaki film, or, potted, in the window of a cool doughnut shop in Brooklyn. In the wild, D. pachyphytum grows in only one place: the Isla de Cedros, in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, preferring the steep, foggy cliffs in the north. To see a D. pachyphytum in nature, you have to hike twelve miles through mountainous terrain, or you could arrive by boat or helicopter.

In May, 2017, at a military checkpoint in northern Baja, a van with a few men in it was inspected and some D. pachyphytum were found. Although it is illegal to take the island’s D. pachyphytum, it was a small amount. Not long afterward, a fifty-five-foot tractor-trailer arrived at the same checkpoint. In it were some five thousand D. pachyphytum. Four men were arrested. It was not an anomalous incident. Another Cedros Island cactus-theft attempt had happened not long before. A year later, thirty plastic containers that arrived by FedEx at the La Paz airport were found to contain multitudes of the cute and rare plants.

Cactus heists have become common. Consider the saguaro, that most classic of cacti, the one that looks like it has its hands up at gunpoint, near a fantasy version of Wild Bill Hickok or Jesse James. One night in 2007, two men went into Saguaro National Park, outside Tucson, and made off with seventeen of the cacti, which can grow to more than forty feet high, and weigh a few tons, though they can take years simply to grow an inch tall. The park has now microchipped about a thousand of its most accessible saguaros, to discourage theft. In another incident, an impatient customer in line at the post office in Mendocino noticed dirt coming from a batch of sixty boxes that a man in front of her had brought in to mail. When the woman asked him what he was shipping, he told her that it was very valuable. Worried that he was doing something illegal, she tipped off the authorities; customs officials discovered within many of them Dudleya farinosa, a relative of the D. pachyphytum which grows on California’s coastline. Thieves are known to rappel down cliffs to harvest them. In Big Bend National Park, in Texas, six people have been charged for their roles in trafficking between ten thousand and fifteen thousand specimens of rock cacti. In Italy, a police investigation named Operation Atacama led to the seizure of more than a thousand cacti so rare that it is estimated they could have sold for some fifteen hundred dollars each.

Jared Margulies, a professor of geography at the University of Alabama, writes about an international cast of cactus hunters and lovers in “The Cactus Hunters: Desire and Extinction in the Illicit Succulent Trade,” which was recently published. (There are differing ideas about how to define succulents. Margulies defines succulents as plants with a special method of retaining water; for the purposes of his book, he writes, all cacti are succulents, but “not all succulents are cacti.”) Margulies explains that, after writing his dissertation on wildlife-conservation politics, he had intended to study the illegal trade in tiger bones. He read about those stolen saguaros. He was seduced.

Not all cacti are cute or iconic. Some are shaped like sea anemones, some like giant phalluses; many are poky, and some are furry, and some bloom blue and some bloom white and some live most of their lives underground and some are as slight as coins and some weigh more than a ton. Their common names include Teddy bear, velvet, hedgehog, and buckhorn. For many people, they are enchanting. “I have seen the creeping devil cactus creep. . . . rode by towering cardons until I see spines in my sleep,” a cactus lover wrote in a letter in 1930. The three hundred or so pages of “Xerophile: Cactus Photographs from Expeditions of the Obsessed” (a revised edition was published in 2021) will remind you of how meagre even the wildest human imagination is in comparison with that of nature. We think of cacti as hardy, because they can survive and even flourish with very little water. But many kinds of cacti are in considerable peril: nearly a third of known species are in danger of extinction. As Margulies shows, these plants’ rarity often serves to increase their appeal among collectors—and that in turn hastens their extinction.

Yet many collectors see themselves as conservationists. “Because of my interest in conservation, I’ve had to break the law,” one collector (who refers to himself as the Indiana Jones of plants) tells Margulies, who is open to the charms of those who steal seeds and plants; like hunters, they are not infrequently experts on what they pursue. In one of the more illuminating sections of the book, Margulies travels to the Czech Republic. “Czech collectors have achieved a notorious status among North and South American conservation agencies,” he writes. One expert tells him that a scientist once estimated that “for every Mexican researcher that is in the field, there are twenty Czechs!” and complains that, often, as soon as a new species is described in the literature, it is being traded by Czechs and Germans.

The Czech collector A. V. Frič, who lived from 1882 to 1944, is considered the originator of the country’s enthusiasm for cacti, having brought over species from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Mexico. His fate and that of his plants were closely bound. At the start of the Second World War, when Frič could not obtain enough fuel to keep his greenhouses warm, some forty thousand cacti died from the cold. Near the end of the war, Frič was scratched by a rusty nail while tending to his rabbits, and he contracted tetanus and died the next month. Today, his image hangs in many Czech greenhouses.

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