Nearly a third of the world’s cactus species face extinction, due to man-made activities, such as mining, agriculture, trade and construction.
The study was conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the results were published in the journal Nature Plants. This was the first time that a global assessment regarding plant health was carried out, and researchers are shocked by their findings.
“We did not expect cacti to be so highly threatened and for illegal trade to be such an important driver of their decline”, declared Barbara Goettsch, lead author of the study.
Experts analyzed 1480 types of cactus for 5 years, mostly on the American continent, where these plants are prevalent. It was determined that 31% of them were severely depleted, with previously common types like Echinopsis pampana now at less than half their original numbers.
It appears that the main contributing factor leading to this perilous situation is illegal trade, which transforms these plants into commodities that are sold in Europe and Asia at staggering rates.
Live plants and seeds are displaced from their natural environment, in order to make the horticulture sector more profitable. For instance, rare cacti like Ariocarpus can cost up to $1,000 per plant, which makes such exports extremely tempting to traders.
Researchers warn that this type of wildlife trafficking is in fact much more common and serious than the highly-publicized contraband of elephant ivory and rhino horn.
The plants are sold to complete private ornamental collections, and also face other threats such as smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture.
In addition, there are also other pressures that cactus species are subjected to, such as residential and commercial development, site excavations and shrimp farming. All of these factors disrupt the plants’ habitat, with devastating consequences.
According to the environmental group, cacti are now the 5th most endangered category on its Red List of Threatened Species, as a result of human encroachment. They are less at risk than cycads, amphibians, conifers and corals, but more imperiled than mammals and birds.
The prickly plants are actually an essential part of the desert ecosystem, by quenching the thirst and hunger of fauna such as deer, rabbits, quails, tortoises, snakes and coyotes.
Animals exist in a symbiotic relationship with the cacti, by receiving nutrition and water from them, and in return helping the plants spread their seeds. Moreover, hummingbirds, bats, bees and moths pollinate the cacti, while feeding on their nectar.
Given the importance of cacti for the survival of so many species, the conservation group urges authorities to become more involved in protecting these plants, before their numbers are dwindled beyond repair.
Illegal trade should be more strictly punished, in order to discourage such practices, especially given the fact that more than a half of the world’s cacti are vital to humans for medicinal purposes and food.
As the IUCN suggests, stringent measures should be taken in Uruguay, Chile and Brazil, where the contraband situation is at its grimmest.
Moreover, conservation efforts should be made in order to promote sustainable harvesting and guard arid lands against the impact of man-made activities, such as construction, mining and aquaculture.
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