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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

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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