History of the cactus: "from pest to contraband"

Despite its current popularity, cacti were once considered a pest in Australia in the 1920s and 30s. "Things like prickly pear were very widespread through New South Wales and Queensland. They were introduced as what was called a biological fence," Dr. Brett Summerell, chief botanist at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, says.

The prickly pear ended up being an invasive and harmful species that spread across the country, he says. It wasn't until the nineties that he started to notice cacti returning in popularity in Australia. "Over the last 20 years, they have become more and more popular. And I think people just recognize that they're really quite easy to look after."

However, there is a downside to the cactus popularity. "Most Chilean cacti in Australian collections are either descendant of historic imports or grown from seed from cultivators around the world — still currently legal for import — but evidence of the illegal plant trade is still visible in Australia despite every effort being made to discourage it." 

The words "wildlife trafficking" might evoke images of elephant ivory, rhino horn or lion claws. But perhaps less is known about the spike in demand for — and the illegal trade of — a well-known prickly plant. Journalist Rachel Nuwer has written on wildlife and plant trafficking. 

Ms. Nuwer says illegal cacti trafficking is the number one threat to the decline in cactus species. "Cacti live in some of the harshest conditions on earth but this makes them susceptible to illegal trade, as they can survive long journeys by post, without soil, water or light." 

Cacti smuggling can be a lucrative business, with some rare cacti selling for upwards of $10,000 each. In February 2020, there was a huge trafficking bust in Italy, which saw more than 1,000 of the world's rarest cacti seized.

Dr Brett Summerell has witnessed both the rise in popularity and the theft of this plant. "People will steal the plants out of the Botanic Gardens and out of the cacti garden," he says.

So what can be done to discourage plant trafficking, particularly in a world where Ms Nuwer has discovered that cacti are all the rage amongst 'the Instagram crew and hipsters'. "Luckily, it's not your average plant parent who's really driving this decline. It is very, very specialist collectors who have thousands to spend on these rare plants," Ms. Nuwer says. She advises collectors to avoid purchasing rare cacti online, saying an exorbitant price tag can often mean it's an illegally traded plant.

And as for those rare cacti that were illegally harvested and discovered in a makeshift greenhouse in Italy, they are now being returned to their original home in the Atacama desert in Chile.

Read the complete article at www.abc.net.au.

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