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This is One Prickly Situation For Cacti…

Cactus plants, which are crucial to arid desert ecosystems and their wildlife, are facing an extinction crisis of the largest proportions. Of the 1,478 species assessed by the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 31% of species are reportedly threatened with extinction.

Desert wildlife, primarily pollinators, depend on cacti for both food and shelter. Without them, life in the deserts of North, Central, and South America could be wiped out completely.

Photo Credit: Gina Glenne/USFWS

Threatened Colorado hookless cactus. Photo Credit: Gina Glenne/USFWS

In 2003, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and IUCN issued a similar warning, specifically in the Chihuahuan desert, where at the time 200 of the desert’s cacti species had been in danger of dying out. At that time, TRAFFIC (which monitors wildlife trade for WWF and IUCN) determined that xeriscaping (planting cacti in the lawns of desert communities) had been a major cause of the decline of many of these succulent plants.

This time IUCN added commercial, residential, aquacultural, and agricultural land developments to the list of threats against cacti species; worse still, collectors seeking out the rare species have been illegally over-harvesting them, substantially contributing to their low numbers.

Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

Threatened Lee pincushion cactus. Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

IUCN’s Director General has called on the conservation community to enact an international effort to end the illegal trade of cacti and wildlife, with the hope of protecting these endangered plants. The initial report, published in the journal Nature, also implores a global effort to assess all known species of cacti to get a better understanding of the scope of this crisis.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.