Cactus Microchipped to Stymie Plant Rustlers

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Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park: let’s hope they stay safe from poachers! Source: J. Wallner, National Park Service

Officials in Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, have had to resort to microchipping some 1,000 specimens of the park’s iconic saguaro cactus (Carnegia gigantea) in a bid to deter cactus thieves. The tall cactus with thick arms are often over 150 years old and moving them is quite a task. Even so, they’re highly prized in landscaping due to their stark, almost otherworldly appearance, with tall specimens fetching up to $1,000 apiece, and that’s enough to stimulate lust in the heart of plant rustlers.

Theft has been a problem in the park for at least half a century. Given the saguaro’s extremely slow growth rate (it takes specimens about 100 years before they produce a first arm), each theft is a tragedy, doubly so in that mature specimens don’t take well to transplanting and often end up dying.

Deterrent

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This is not a theft, but the legitimate moving of a saguaro from a spot under development. Still, it gives an idea of the complexity involved in stealing such a giant! Source: activerain.com

The type of microchipping being done is a relatively low-tech, inexpensive form (it cost the park about $3,000), similar to microchipping pets. Stealing plants will not set off a siren, nor will the cacti give off a signal leading the sheriff and his posse to round up the rustlers. It’s only if a suspicious new saguaro is checked with the proper scanner that the theft will be discovered.

Instead, official are counting on a deterrent effect. Cactus rustlers are not acting impulsively (no one steals a prickly 2 ton cactus on a whim!). Instead, stealing cactus is a business. The fear of being caught (and it’s illegal to move a saguaro without permission, not to mention taking anything from a national park) will hopefully make cactus theft seem less worthwhile.

The 1,000 plants with microchips are mostly along the periphery of the park and near roads. That’s only a small proportion of the some 1.9 million saguaros in the park, but these are the specimens most visible to the nearly 1 million visitors who come annually to the park to see them.


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Notice there are no longer any saguaros with arms near the entrance to Saguaro National Park: favorites with thieves, they were all stolen! Source: Eegorr, Wikimedia Commons

Do visit Saguaro National Park: I have and it’s absolutely stunning! But take only souvenir photos, not souvenir plants!2018328A J. Wallner, NPS

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