When most people think of the illegal trade in wildlife, thoughts tend to veer towards the poaching of elephants, tigers and rhinos. But while these charismatic species get most of the attention, other lesser known ones are being traded ever closer to the brink of extinction. It turns out that many cacti are on that precipitous edge, as nearly a third of all cactus species are threatened with extinction, in what has been described as a “disturbing” finding.
“We did not expect cacti to be so highly threatened and for illegal trade to be such an important driver of their decline,” said Barbara Goettsch in a statement. Goettsch coauthored the study, which is the first comprehensive, global assessment of cacti, published in the journal Nature Plants. “Their loss could have far-reaching consequences for the diversity and ecology of arid lands and for local communities dependent on wild-harvested fruit and stems.”
The assessment, conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), analyzed 1,480 species of cacti over a five year period. All of these species – except one – are native to the Americas, and can be found growing from coastal plains to high mountains. The researchers found that over half of all species were used by people for food or medicinal purposes, making the illegal trade of both live plants and seeds for the horticultural industry and private collections the main threat faced by the prickly plants.
The illegal trade in plants, much like that of animals, is a highly lucrative business. Obviously conducted in secrecy, the exact scale of the problem is hard to quantify. But with the legal trade in plants worth an estimated $13.7 billion (£9bn), then the size of the illegal trade is likely to be in the hundreds of millions. The IUCN now classes cacti as the fifth most threatened taxonomic group on its red list, and on par with sharks and rays.
“These findings are disturbing,” said Inger Andersen, the Director General of the IUCN, in a statement. “They confirm that the scale of the illegal wildlife trade – including trade in plants – is much greater than we had previously thought, and that wildlife trafficking concerns many more species than the charismatic rhinos and elephants which tend to receive global attention.”
Although the hotspots for threatened cactus species are obviously often arid and seem barren, and thus usually considered unimportant by conservation groups, these areas are actually surprisingly richer in biodiversity and threatened species than expected. The authors hope that this report might help increase the awareness in the importance of the sustainable trade in cacti, and the need for broader protection for arid land.
Top image in text: Opuntia ficus-indica. Karol Franks CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Bottom image in text: Mammillaria herrerae. Jardín Botánico Regional de Cadereyta