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Posts Tagged ‘trafficking’

Photo: Tini and Jacob Wijpkema.
Rare cactus, Copiapoa cinerascens, found in Chile. According to the NY Times, “Cactus traffickers are cleaning out the deserts.”

Today’s story, about an endangered cactus from Chile, demonstrates the role individuals’ tastes can play in the environment. Our individual choices add up to a force for right or wrong, whether we leave our engine running while we go shopping or we collect plants and animals because they are rare. “One and two and 50 make a million,” you know.

At the New York Times, Rachel Nuwer says some rare cactuses are getting too popular with unscrupulous collectors.

“Andrea Cattabriga has seen a lot of cactuses where they didn’t belong. But he’d never seen anything like Operation Atacama, a bust carried out last year in Italy. A cactus expert and president of the Association for Biodiversity and Conservation, Mr. Cattabriga often helps the police identify the odd specimen seized from tourists or intercepted in the post.

“This time, however, Mr. Cattabriga was confronted by a stunning display: more than 1,000 of some of the world’s rarest cactuses, valued at over $1.2 million on the black market.

“Almost all of the protected plants had come from Chile, which does not legally export them, and some were well over a century old. The operation — which occurred in February 2020, but is being made public now because of the cactuses’ recent return to Chile — was most likely the biggest international cactus seizure in nearly three decades. It also highlights how much money traffickers may be earning from the trade. …

‘Here is an organism that has evolved over millions of years to be able to survive in the harshest conditions you can find on the planet, but that finishes its life in this way — just as an object to be sold,’ [Mr. Cattabriga] said.

“As with the market for tiger bones, ivory, pangolin scales and rhino horn, a flourishing illegal global trade exists for plants. ‘Just about every plant you can probably think of is trafficked in some way,’ said Eric Jumper, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Cactuses and other succulents are among the most sought after, along with orchids and, increasingly, carnivorous species.

“Trafficking can take a serious toll. Over 30 percent of the world’s nearly 1,500 cactus species are threatened with extinction. Unscrupulous collection is the primary driver of that decline, affecting almost half of imperiled species. Yet this realm of illegal trade is typically overlooked, a prime example of ‘plant blindness,’ or the human tendency to broadly ignore this important branch on the tree of life.

“ ‘The basic functioning of the planet would effectively grind to a halt without plants, but people care more about animals,’ said Jared Margulies, a geographer at the University of Alabama who studies plant trafficking. ‘A lot of plant species are not receiving the amount of attention they would be if they had eyes and faces.’

“Yet the size of Operation Atacama could be a notable exception. It is also the largest known example of cactuses stolen from the wild being repatriated for reintroduction into their native habitat.

“Experts also hope the case can be a turning point for how countries, collectors, conservationists and the industry deal with the thorny issue of international cactus trafficking.

“ ‘Society as a whole can no longer continue to have a naïve view of this problem,’ said Pablo Guerrero, a botanist at the University of Concepción in Chile. …

“Cactuses confiscated by the Italian authorities are normally destroyed or, if they are rare species, sent to botanical gardens. But with Operation Atacama, ‘it was very different,’ Mr. Cattabriga said. … At first, there was discussion of sending the plants to other botanical gardens in Italy and broader Europe. But Mr. Cattabriga, [Lt. Col. Simone Cecchini, chief of the wildlife division of the local police department] and Dr. Guerrero were adamant they be returned to Chile for both conservation and symbolic purposes.

“Working with [Bárbara Goettsch, co-chair of the Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature] and several others, they spent much of 2020 navigating Italian, Chilean and international bureaucracy to secure permission to send the plants home. ‘It’s the first time this has happened, so no one was really clear on how to do this,’ Dr. Guerrero said.

“The authorities finally agreed to the transfer in late 2020. But neither Chile nor Italy would pay the approximately $3,600 shipping cost.

“Dr. Goettsch managed to secure about three-quarters of the funds from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the botanical garden in Milan pitched in as well. The rest was provided by Liz Vayda, owner of B. Willow, a plant shop in Baltimore that regularly donates to environmental groups.

“Finally, in late April, 844 cactuses made the return journey to Chile.”

Read about the homecoming at the Times, here.

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