Texas’s cactus cops battle to save rare desert beauty from smuggling gangs

By Rob Walker

Special agents in America have busted a smuggling ring on the US-Mexico border, but their haul is not drugs or the immigrants that President Donald Trump rails against with his “big beautiful wall”.

These smugglers were trafficking something all together less high profile – so-called “living rock cactus” that grows uniquely on the arid plains of Big Bend national park in Texas.

“They’re not your typical cacti. They have no spikes at all, they’re the teddy bear of cacti – soft and plushy,” said botanist Karen Little, who specialises in conservation.

The plants (sp. Ariocarpus fissuratus) take decades to grow to maturity, and they’ve historically been vulnerable in the wild because feral hogs eat their roots. But now they have a more dangerous predator. “The bigger threat now is from people,” Little said.

The plant’s rarity has made it highly sought after in Europe and Asia and attracted organised crime, said Phillip Land, the special agent in charge of the US Fish and Wildlife Service that presides over the Big Bend’s 1,250 square miles of rocky desert.

The raid is a coup for Land and his cactus cops – they seized around 4,000 of the rare plants. But it seems nothing when compared with the tens of thousands of cacti that get ripped from the ground every year.

Big Bend national park in Texas.
Big Bend national park in Texas. Photograph: Inge Johnsson/Alamy

The plant’s purported hallucinatory qualities make it valuable, Land said, but demand is also strong from hobbyists and horticulturalists who collect and show off these plants.

“These people are threatening the species with extinction and killing the local ecosystem,” he said.

Texas map

With a huge area to patrol, taking on the cactus smugglers is not easy, but John F Bash, Texas US Attorney general, isn’t holding back. “When you mess with protected Texas cacti, you’re messing with Texas,” Bash said in a statement after the latest arrests.

Land said his team at the US Fish and Wildlife Service is honing its cactus-poacher catching skills. If agents get a tip-off about suspicious activity, they go undercover, posing as tourists, to get as close as possible to the smugglers – sometimes putting tracking devices on their vehicles. But the gangs are tech-savvy too, often knowing the precise GPS location of the cacti they want to dig up.

Some will even buy up chunks of terrain where they know the cacti grow, Land said. Poachers damage land that’s been untouched for hundreds of years, digging up entire “colonies” of cacti.

They then harvest the plant and sell it on the Internet, packing it into boxes that dodge customs by pretending to be toys.

The cacti are an unlikely luxury item, Little says, because for most of the year they’re not much to look at. “They’re squat and grey and seem lost in the green limestone of the landscape,” she says.

Botanist Karen Little specialises in cacti conservation.
Botanist Karen Little specialises in cacti conservation. Photograph: Al Barrus/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

They don’t grow upwards like the giant saguaros straight out of a John Wayne movie. “You’d barely even notice these cacti until you walked right up to them,” she said.

“But then, in the autumn, they bloom with the most incredibly beautiful pink flowers. It’s their ugly duckling beauty that makes them even more desirable.”

Over the years Little has watched as the population of these cacti disappear from the landscape of the Chihuahuan desert. The living rock cactus is not alone. There are 1,480 species of cacti but almost a third are now threatened, Little said. In part it’s the loss of their natural habitat to humans, but more and more it’s the black market.