In March of 2019 a woman was caught at an airport in New Zealand trying to smuggle something very peculiar into the country, right as a detection dog sniffed her way. She rushed to the bathroom to dispose of the bounty She ripped off stockings filled with the illicit product, flushed them down toilets and hid them in garbage bins. When officials searched the bathroom later, they found the remains of over seven thousand dollars worth of cacti and succulents, including eight, endangered or threatened species of the plants. Yeah, those cute, hearty little plants that adorn windowsills across Instagram. These days, that’s exactly what the woman had stuffed into stockings and taped to her body 947 plants to be exact. The world is amidst a houseplant obsession In the US. Alone, 6 million Americans were estimated to take up gardening in 2015 and 5 million of those people were millennials, who mostly tend to their indoor gardens 2020 saw an even bigger jump in plant popularity, While many of us were stuck at home. Adding a few indoor plants helped ease the discomfort of quarantine life, US. Garden Centers reported an 87 increase in sales at the outset of the pandemic and 32 percent of nurseries reported an increase in profit, but this obsession has fueled a global illegal trade, a succulent and cacti poaching, especially of rare endangered species, is on the rise and many fear that one day we won’t see many unique cacti in the wild anymore. This isn’t the first time A plant’s popularity has given rise to illicit activities, leading up to the much mythologized tulip mania. In 1600s Holland Tulip bulbs were stolen out of Leiden Garden, which is now one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands in the 1800s fern fever descended upon England, people searched voraciously for rare species of ferns, which inevitably gave way to decades of fern theft. More recently, air plants from Florida, The Orchid and the Venus fly trap in North and South Carolina have been victims of consumer obsession as collectors. Seek them out. These activities have devastated wild populations of these plants and now succulents are the target, probably the most recognizable, succulent to face these same threats is the massive saguaro cactus, which can take up to 70 years to reach six feet. This means it’s extremely valuable for poachers, the taller, the cactus, the more money it can rake in up to a hundred dollars per foot now smaller succulents and cacti face the same grave threat as their online popularity grows. This is not happening in the quote, unquote black market. This is not happening in the dark net. This is happening on ebay. It’s happening in Facebook groups, It’s happening on Instagram, it’s happening at collector’s shows and while it is illegal or illicit, it’s very much occurring and there’s very very little regulation occurring. This is a global issue and there’s global demand for these species. Cacti are smuggled out of places like the US. Mexico, Chile or even South Africa. They can be openly sold online, For example, the Dudliya, succulent from California can go for 50 each overseas, The unfortunate consequences of how these species have evolved in ways that may make them more susceptible to illicit trade, The fact that these species can survive long periods often times without water makes it much easier, for instance, to remove them from the ground and put them in a box and ship them around the world. In a way that you couldn’t necessarily transport a much more sensitive plant, The living rock cactus, which is native to parts of Texas and Mexico, takes decades to reach maturity. One little plant could be fifty dollars. A bigger size plant might be up to two hundred dollars. That was one person that made three hundred thousand in them about a half a year. So you can see how many cactus are affected. They don’t exist anywhere else. It wouldn’t take long to eliminate them from the area. Karen Little has rescued many of these living rock cacti after they are seized by Fish and Wildlife Service officials. They came in pots like you might think, but they also came in garbage bags dead alive, mostly dead, but I ended up with about 3 500 live ones or ones that I thought could make it, and that’s not even counting the hundreds that couldn’t be saved, but for those who are fueling the demand and purchasing these succulents, they think they are doing conservation. That’s what they think they think. I am saving that plant that it’s gonna go extinct anyway. Because the land is going to be changed for something else at some point, but obviously, once you take the plants out of the natural habitat, all evolution processes disappear with them. It falls on each country to regulate the illegal trade of plants in the US. The illegal trade of plants and wildlife is banned by the Lacy Act, but it can still be difficult to enforce. There are instances where seeds have been captured at customs and Border Patrol. And then the seeds had to be planted and years went by in order to see what cactus species was actually being grown to see whether or not a law had been broken so you can see how that poses some really serious problems for regulation and with increased interest and activity online for certain plants, you can easily drive species to extinction. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, almost a third of the nearly 1500 cactus species evaluated are classified as threatened, while habitat loss due to development and resource depletion or causes. The IUCN also stated that the illegal harvesting and trade of plants and seeds are the main threats to cacti, affecting 47 of threatened species in arid regions. A lot of these species are key for the rest of biodiversity that live there. They are a source of food. They’re a source of water shelter, so they play a key. Role a desert without cacti may sound bleak. There should be cactus all along those trails in the National Park and a lot of places they’re gone and they’re never gonna come back there and that’s a loss for all of us, But there is a path forward in Saguaro National Park officials have been inserting microchips into the cacti to deter thieves before the cacti are dug out of the ground once inserted and scanned It can lead Rangers to exactly where it was taken, but catching the smaller cacti may require a more complex operation of agents going undercover. According to the Atlantic, undercover agents followed a group of tourists from abroad across their southwestern road trip after weeks of tracking agents stopped the group and recovered almost 70 plants or parts of plants in their luggage. The man behind it all received a fine of 525 dollars, but larger smuggling rings have faced greater consequences for six men in Texas involved in smuggling living rock cacti, most received felonies years of probation and were sentenced to pay over a hundred and forty thousand dollars in restitution and fines. Other offenders may face jail time for Karen Little. She has been able to replant the majority of stolen living rock cacti back into their natural habitat, But not all of them. We don’t know where these came from. No one confessed to where they got them and they don’t want to introduce diseases, so it’s impossible to put them back. I did adopt some out. I kept a lot for our cactus garden and while it is generally rare to come across an illegally harvested plant in a local nursery. It can happen. So how can you know? If you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a wild illegally harvested plant, they’re going to look a little bit beaten up and a lot less kind of quote-unquote. Pretty people should feel comfortable asking retailers where these plants came from, and they should be able to get a straightforward answer. I think there is some movement of more clearly communicating the sourcing of plants to give consumers greater confidence that they know where these plants are coming from. The work that I think needs to be done is greater attention to cooperation between commercial growers and regulatory agencies to ensure that these species are available in sustainable legal forms of trade. In the meantime, cacti will continue to be poached from the wild who don’t live here, don’t understand the expansive spaces and how hard it is for us to protect. So if they don’t help us out to protect it, they’re not going to be protected and they’re not going to be there for them in the future, and that’s a bottom line. Law enforcement can only do so much. Thanks for watching. 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