The Sonoran Job: Cactus Theft in Arizona

Keridwen CorneliusMarch 1, 2022
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Rincon Mountain District ranger Steve Bolyard and Saguaro National Park chief ranger Kelsey Cassidy inspect an area in the park where cactus theft frequently occurs.; photo by Camerawerks
Rincon Mountain District ranger Steve Bolyard and Saguaro National Park chief ranger Kelsey Cassidy inspect an area in the park where cactus theft frequently occurs.; photo by Camerawerks

The text messages between Jarrid Maloy and William Starr Schwartz sound like a drug deal straight out of Breaking Bad. Over a period of several months, the two residents of Meadview, a town of 1,500 in northwest Arizona, discussed driving an ATV or car into the desert, grabbing loot for their buyers, and exchanging it for meth, marijuana or money. You need barrels? I need all kinds. Hey, I got you some more baby hedgehogs, pineapples and a good-looking large cotton top. Don’t forget the drugs.

The plot twist in this true crime episode? Barrels, baby hedgehogs, pineapples and cotton tops are all types of cactuses.

In January of this year, Maloy pleaded guilty to stealing cactuses from Lake Mead National Recreation Area and selling them himself or in concert with Schwartz to customers in 18 countries, from the U.S. to France to Afghanistan. He was sentenced to three years of probation and fined approximately $4,700 – the amount he received from the illegal deals. Schwartz, meanwhile, was convicted in 2019 for overseeing or perpetrating the theft of more than 500 cactuses between 2014 and 2018. He was sentenced to 24 months in prison and ordered to pay $22,655. 

Demand for succulents (a broad botanical group that includes cactuses) is spiking, thanks to their ease of care, Instagrammability and the craze for houseplants driven by pandemic lockdowns. In 2019, the U.S. market for succulents was valued at $3.18 billion and is forecasted to reach $8.57 billion by 2027, according to a Verified Market Research report. 

Of course, the vast majority of this cactus commerce is legal. But a small number of collectors whose obsession outweighs their ethics is fueling a shady online trade in smuggled succulents. This black market is one of the main reasons 31 percent of the planet’s nearly 1,500 cactus species are in danger of extinction. Deserts around the world are threatened, and the Southwestern U.S. is a hot spot.

Bolyard and Cassidy keep a lookout for cactus thieves at Saguaro National Park.; photo by Camerawerks
Bolyard and Cassidy keep a lookout for cactus thieves at Saguaro National Park.; photo by Camerawerks

“I’ve seen big holes in the wild where these plants used to be, and we pretty much infer that they were stolen,” says Steve Blackwell, conservation collections manager at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. “The irony is that the more rare a plant becomes, the more valuable it is. So, there’s even more pressure on it [from collectors].”

To thwart this thorny problem, specialists in Arizona are employing a variety of creative solutions, from microchipping and undercover bicycle surveillance in Saguaro National Park to covert salvage operations and a species-preserving seed bank at Desert Botanical Garden.

In 2007, two men engaged in one of the most infamous cactus crimes in Arizona history, shoveling up 17 saguaros in and around Saguaro National Park before authorities intervened. “As I remember the case, the landscape company they were associated with had a big job, and they were looking to upsell the cactuses into this job,” recalls Steve Bolyard, Rincon Mountain District ranger at Saguaro National Park. “So they were going to make a bundle of money for a couple of hours’ work with two guys and a shovel.”

This wasn’t the first time landscapers stole saguaros in the national park or elsewhere in Arizona. A housing boom in the 1990s and early 2000s increased demand for desert landscaping. And saguaros – which grow only in the Sonoran Desert and are the largest cactuses in the U.S. – are considered iconic Arizonan landscaping features. They sell for around $100 per foot on the black market, and magnificent individuals can fetch up to $2,000. But these spiky behemoths are extremely difficult to unearth and transport. A full-grown saguaro can weigh more than a ton. So thieves typically target specimens fewer than 6 feet tall.

Still, saguaros of this size are usually half a century old, and they’ve grown accustomed to their particular spot on Earth, learning where the afternoon sun warms their pleated skin and where the rare rains trickle past their roots. They’ve sent a taproot several feet into the ground and laid down a labyrinth of shallow roots stretching as wide as the plant is tall. So when crooks carelessly uproot saguaros, roll them up in a carpet to cover their spines, pile them into a pickup and sell them to someone who plunks them into a suburban front yard next to a sidewalk, these stately plants often die.

The Saguaro National Park rangers and the public were outraged at the theft of the 17 saguaros – the largest such incident in the park’s history. They called for more efforts to prevent cactus plundering. Inspired by a barrel cactus-microchipping program at Lake Mead, the rangers decided to microchip saguaros. Over a period of several years, they used a device that looks like a staple gun to fire a tiny $4 chip into the flesh of more than 1,000 saguaros that were deemed high-risk due to their size and location.

Thanks to this technology, park officials or law enforcement agents can scan saguaros at nurseries or other sites to find contraband cactuses and trace them back to a specific hole in the ground. Based on the number of international headlines the program has earned, it’s safe to say many cactus-nappers know about the effort and are aware their actions might be traced. It seems to be an effective deterrent. “We know based on our previous numbers of stolen cactuses and our current numbers that the project has been a tremendous success,” Bolyard says.

The park also recently debuted a program in which rangers patrol saguaro forests and streets on road bikes and mountain bikes. “That’s going to help, because the bikes are able to get to places where vehicles can’t, and they can take a better look at things. We’ve already had some success with these programs,” says Kelsey Cassidy, chief ranger at Saguaro National Park.

Steve Blackwell, biologist at Desert Botanical Garden, holds a potted Ariocarpus fissuratus, which was rescued from a poacher headed to Europe.; photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Steve Blackwell, biologist at Desert Botanical Garden, holds a potted Ariocarpus fissuratus, which was rescued from a poacher headed to Europe.; photo by Mirelle Inglefield

“With the road cycling, our rangers have been able to blend in and sneak up on people that are stealing some of the natural resources in the park,” Bolyard says.

Cassidy adds that rangers’ jobs involve more criminal-catching than many park visitors might imagine. “What people don’t realize is that park rangers are also federal officers,” she says. “We go through the same training and go to the same academy that Border Patrol and Homeland Security does.”

She can’t go into details, but at Mojave National Preserve, where she used to work, armed rangers not only dealt with cactus bandits and wildlife rustlers, but also with archaeological site thieves, murdered bodies ditched in the desert and even train robbers. She and her fellow rangers have investigated crime scenes, searching for clues such as footprints and cigarette butts, and presented the evidence in court.

Tackling cactus trafficking also involves information sharing between national park rangers throughout the Southwest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, Bolyard explains. “Their agents let us know if any of the known international poachers are returning to the U.S., as well as letting us know what they’re finding at airports and other avenues to get [trafficked cactuses] out of the country. Then we can keep an extra eye out [for poachers].”

As one might imagine, the trade in purloined saguaros tends to stick to the Southwest. After all, it’s no small task to ship a 6-foot-tall cactus to Korea or Switzerland. So when it comes to global trafficking, the most vulnerable cactuses are the littlest.

“[Poachers] tend to like the smaller cactus because you can throw a bunch of them in your pocket or whatever, and it’s easier to get them out [of the state or the country],” Blackwell says. In addition, cactuses are hardy organisms that can stoically endure being mailed across the planet in dark, waterless, soil-free packages mislabeled “garden décor.”

Diminutive cactuses with quirky qualities are particularly popular among collectors. In 2019, specimens of Sclerocactus havasupaiensis – a tiny species endemic to the Grand Canyon whose messy spines look like a Muppet hairdo – showed up in an online auction in Ukraine. In 2020, a man pleaded guilty to smuggling thousands of tiny Ariocarpus fissuratus – whose folds eerily resemble a hatching egg in the movie Aliens – out of Big Bend National Park in Texas. (A few Ariocarpus fissuratus specimens, no bigger than a hockey puck, are currently listed on eBay for $350 each.) Then there’s pediocactus, a plant with which Blackwell has a close relationship.

Several years ago, Blackwell traveled to New Mexico to conduct a secretive salvage mission on a 25-acre pocket of desert – perhaps the last stronghold of the critically endangered Pediocactus knowltonii. Smaller than a golf ball, these green mini globes are polka-dotted with clusters of white spines and crowned with baby pink flowers.

When the species was first identified by science around 1960, its population was estimated at 100,000. But poaching – as well as other factors like ravenous rabbits – has shrunk their numbers to around 3,500.

What’s more, their home patch is surrounded by natural gas rigs. The roads constructed to support that industry made it easier for poachers to sneak onto the remote site and vamoose with a trunkful of succulents.

To help save the species, Blackwell took around 50 pediocactus cuttings and brought them back to Desert Botanical Garden. He collected seeds from the fruits, some of which were placed in the Garden’s seed bank, which is home to thousands of seeds from both rare and common plants. “We try to get out there preemptively and take these seeds before somebody else does,” Blackwell says. “So we can have them as an insurance policy just in case they all get poached from the wild.”

Other seeds from the pediocactuses can be planted directly in the wild or grown into cactuses that will be reintroduced at a secret site a few miles away from their parent plants’ home. But because of the nature of cactuses, this effort is an incredibly protracted endeavor.

“The problem is that they grow so slowly, so it will take a decade before we can put those back out,” Blackwell says. “That’s another reason people poach [cactuses], because it’s cheaper to take them right from the wild than it is to spend 10 years growing them out for someone’s collection.” Furthermore, he adds, “collectors actually prefer plants that are wild than if they were grown in a nursery. There’s just more appeal.”

In addition to conducting salvaging expeditions, DBG is also a designated plant rescue center. When officials seize smuggled cactuses, they typically don’t know where the plants came from. They can’t return them to a random place in the wild, since introducing cactuses to a potentially genetically different population of the same species could harm the resident population.

So the authorities send confiscated plants to botanical gardens and nurseries around the country that serve as rescue centers. For example, DBG received around 50 Ariocarpus fissuratus cactuses from the Big Bend smuggling sting.

“Our job in that capacity is to take care of the confiscated plants in perpetuity,” Blackwell says. “We can display them and take seeds from them, but we can’t sell them [due to international trade protections], and we couldn’t do a restoration project with them. So they will live here until they die. They are no longer serving their ecological function that they were [serving] prior to being taken from the wild.”

That brings up a question: If nature lovers want these plants to fulfill their ecological purpose and not end up on some unscrupulous collector’s window ledge, what can they do to help stop cactus poaching?

To ensure you’re not inadvertently participating in the illegal trade, avoid buying plants from internet sites like eBay or from people in other countries. Instead, “buy from reputable sources that you know are ethically sourcing their plants,” advises Amy Belk, manager of the Pima County Native Plant Nursery. You can search the Better Business Bureau, she says, but you can also rest assured that top local nurseries or botanical gardens will be reputable sellers. Such nurseries grow their own cactuses, obtain them from other nurseries or source legally collected wild plants. Ask your nursery where they sourced their cactuses and make sure your landscaping company has the appropriate permits for their saguaros.

If you witness suspicious behavior on public lands – say, someone pilfering plants, pottery sherds or petrified wood – call the park or preserve’s hotline. Never take a plant from the wild – even if your intentions are honorable, Belk says. If you see, for example, an endangered Pima pineapple cactus on land that’s about to be bulldozed for apartments, don’t transport it to safer ground.

“It’s very commendable to want to save them, but you’ve just broken a federal law, and you could have a felony on your hands,” Belk says. “So don’t go rogue.”

Finally, Blackwell says, remember that “every plant that’s taken out of the wild has some impact. Everything we do has cascading effects on the pollinators and other animals that rely on these plants. And they’re happier where they’re growing than they would be anywhere else.”

Hot Cacti 

A lineup of the most-poached cactus breeds.

photos courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
photos courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

Compass barrel cactus

Notable for their wreath of chartreuse blooms, these oft-sought succulents were pilfered to the tune of $1 million from Lake Mead National Recreation Area in 2000, prompting ranger Alice Newton to start a barrel cactus microchipping program.

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Hedgehog cactus

Wickedly spiky and sporting blooms in shades of scarlet, bubble gum or magenta, the hedgehog genus includes around 60 species, including fuchsia-flowered Engelmann hedgehogs and the endangered Arizona hedgehog cactus of Eastern Arizona.

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Pineapple cactus

Favored by collectors for their outsize pink flowers, the Johnson pineapple cactus – which resides in Northwestern Arizona – is relatively rare, but not endangered like the yellow-flowered Pima pineapple cactus of Southern Arizona.

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Cotton top cactus

Part of the category of barrel cactuses, this Mojave Desert dweller sprouts thick pink spines and wooly white fruits that give the plant its name and make it a unique find for ambitious poachers.

photo by Mirelle Inglefield
photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Ariocarpus fissuratus 

In 2015, authorities caught traffickers trying to smuggle around 3,500 of these star-shaped oddities, better known as living rock cactuses. Though not endangered, they grow only in a small area of northern Mexico and Texas’ Big Bend region.

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Sclerocactus havasupaiensis

As the name suggests, this endangered fishhook-spined cactus grows only in Havasupai Canyon. Desired for its rarity and perfumed flowers, the breed was spotted on an illegal 2019 eBay auction run by a seller in Ukraine. 

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Pediocactus knowltonii

Worried the Navajo Reservoir would flood the pediocactuses’ territory, members of the New Mexico Cactus and Succulent Society illegally “salvaged” thousands of this critically endangered species. No one knows what happened to
the plants.

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