Global Cactus Traffickers Are Cleaning Out the Deserts

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But while stronger law enforcement is welcome, a variety of experts believe prohibition, on its own, will not stop trafficking. Instead, they favor meeting demand through sustainably managed collection of seeds or cuttings of wild plants, which could be used for artificial propagation by certified greenhouses.

Sales of these legally sourced plants could help offset illegal trade. Preferably, the proceeds would go directly to communities living alongside the species, the experts say, creating incentives to protect them. The cactus and succulent trade is “big business, but the majority of that money is not centered in countries of origin,” Dr. Margulies said. “I think there should be a push to engage in this more from a social justice lens.”

Many countries’ domestic legislation prohibits these types of activities, however, as do strict international trade laws and bureaucracy. The result, Mr. Cattabriga said, is a system that “discourages the reproduction of rare plants in captivity, and has the side effect of exacerbating the illicit trade.”

Dr. Guerrero hopes that Operation Atacama will ignite discussions of how to reform legislation to make it more amenable to solutions.

In the meantime, some plant enthusiasts are going out of their way to change cactus collecting culture. Ms. Vayda at B. Willow, for example, is in conversation with the International Union for Conservation of Nature about potentially establishing houseplant industry standards for certifying that greenhouses use legally sourced plants, similar to organic or fair-trade food labels. “Right now, I have to specifically ask a grower, ‘Where do your plants from?’” she said.

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America is trying to steer members away from the temptation of poached plants through educational talks, articles it publishes and other means. The society also banned growers from entering specimens into specialty shows and competitions that members would have no way of legally acquiring today.

“You can’t have a Copiapoa collected in Chile in the 1970s get the ribbon, and then tell members, ‘No, you can’t have that plant, you have to start from seed and in 200 years you can have it,’” Mr. Pavlat said. “We have to reset what people’s goals and expectations are.”

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