Cacti can survive in the most extreme weather conditions having adapted to living in desert and arid climates. But despite their tough exterior, out of the 141 species of cacti already on the IUCN Red List, 25 species are classified as Endangered and 27 are Critically Endangered[sc:1]. According to the IUCN, this makes cacti one of the most endangered species globally with 31% of all cacti at the brink of extinction[sc:2]. The factors contributing to this are primarily conversion of wild land to farming and ranching or urban development as well as the harvest of cactus seeds and plants for trade and private collection[sc:2]. While illegal trade is usually associated with quintessential species such as rhinos or tigers, a 2015 IUCN report indicates that illegal trading is a key reason for the decline of cacti population[sc:3]. This is particularly alarming since cacti have been included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1975.
Cacti are most commonly used in ornamental horticulture, but some species are eaten or used in traditional medicine. Illegal trade of live plants and seeds is responsible for threatening 47% of the affected species of cactus. While species of cactus are widely available across the globe, all but one species are endemic to the Americas ranging from Patagonia in South America through to areas of western Canada. The exception is Rhipsalis baccifera found in tropical Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka[sc:3].
As a result, more than 87% of the plants destined for horticulture are sourced from the wild. With only a few suppliers growing their own cacti, this had led to increasing stress on the local ecosystems where cacti are found[sc:3]. An example illustrating the decline being witnessed is Echinopsis pampana which was once abundant but whose population has been more than halved over the last 15 years. Some species of cactus, such as Ariocarpus. Can be sold at up to $1,000 per plant in Europe or Asia[sc:4].
The IUCN report has also identified various hotspots all across the Americas where cacti are particularly at risk. These areas range from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and parts of Uruguay to the Mexican states of Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, and Puebla. While these places are often perceived as lacking in natural beauty and as being unimportant from a biodiversity and ecosystem point of view, they are in fact the very opposite. While in reality they are rich in biodiversity, they overlooked when planning conservation strategies. What makes the protection of cacti even more complicated is that the areas where they are found do not normally overlap with areas where other endangered species are found.
As startling as the results of this research have been, the report’s authors have identified a number of solutions for reversing this damaging trend of cacti endangerment. First, experts need to raise awareness about the important role cacti play in their ecosystems. For example, cacti are an important source of food and water for many animals such as the bighorn sheep and the antelope ground squirrel. Secondly, policy-makers must recognise that a tailored approach is needed to support effective cacti conservation measures. Secondly, authorities need to step up in terms of the enforcement of CITES. For a lot of countries, implementation of CITES has only recently been enforced. This should be coupled with efforts to educate people on the importance of sustainable collection of cacti from the wild to better conserve the species.