It is pretty common to hear of well-armed poachers killing African elephants for ivory, trapping exotic animals for quick export, and other kinds of rustling gambits for money. A single pound of rhino horn from Zimbabwe or Kenya can regularly fetch up to $1,500 in the underground market, and fully $60,000 per kilo. That’s more than the price of either cocaine or gold, and it keeps the practice going no matter how much military resistance is applied to the problem in affected countries.

What is far less common is news about a growing, less lucrative but still profitable, venture of stealing plants from Arizona and California soil. The main object of pilferage is the cactus plant.

At last count, there were over 1,480 species of cacti on earth, all but one being native to the United States. The vast majority of those species are local to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was, for a while, a popular habit of removing the tall, graceful saguaro cactus from sandy state areas, including what is now Saguardo National Park near the Arizona-California border.

These majestic cacti, still a symbol of the old West in America, and which regularly grow to 30-40 feet in height, were stealthily pulled out of the soil (with great difficulty) and shipped overseas or sold for landscaping (after the kidnapping of the well-known Joshua Tree cacti was halted) before strict state laws virtually put an end to that activity. Most cacti in the U.S. still grow on federally protected land, however, and even though there exist numerous regulations to protect the plants, enforcement has been and is still haphazard. The rather recent case (2018) of wide theft of barrel cactus from Palm Desert, Indio and Yucaipa is a case in point.

Currently, a profitable international market in the extraction and sale of the much smaller dudleva farinosa cactus—a squat, succulent plant prized mainly in Asia—has become a persistent and evolving problem in California. A lot of the smaller versions of cactus are not pretty to look at, but they grow beautiful flowers sometime in their maturation. These flowers add to the monetary value of the plants. The dudleva grows such a flower once a year.

State and federal officials are now announcing big plant theft arrests the way most Californians are used to hearing about large drug busts. One example is the April 2018 arrest of a small group of cactus rustlers with Korean passports and who spoke no English in Humboldt County. The U.S. Postal Inspectors had found these gentlemen trying to mail over 1,334 cactus plants to Asia, with no permits or proper licenses.

With California moving rapidly towards more water salvation projects, and an explosion of city/state renovation efforts using drought-resistant plants, the hardy cactus is a very valuable plant species once again. It is also symbolic of native California flora and fauna. This has produced another thriving industry in plant theft for profit in the state and it will probably not dissipate soon.

Federal and state officials are now even using microchip placements inside barrel cacti and other types to try and get an advantage over the thieves. This is big business in sunny California and may come to rival the current and continuing drug trade.

Africa has its big cats and elephants, and our state has its cacti. Businesses will thrive where there are consistent buyers, sellers and suppliers, and the cactus market currently has all of that.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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