Why the Black Market for Cacti and Succulents Is Booming

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Smugglers are taking advantage of habitat destruction to profit from poached plants, like the small-growing Aztekium ritteri, seen here growing in cultivation. Wendell 'Woody' Minnich

When Wendell "Woody" Minnich was a young man, he was a rock 'n' roll musician who wrote songs about conservation and saving the Earth. Today, he's a septuagenarian who's rocking conservation to a different tune. He has devoted his life to raising awareness of an alarming global decline in wildlife, with an emphasis on cacti and succulents threatened by habitat loss and black-market smuggling.

Minnich, a retired high school graphic-design teacher, became a serious grower of cacti and succulents in the late 1960s. In the ensuing 50 years, he has evolved from an amateur scientist to a devoted field botanist, becoming a rock star to the general membership of cacti and succulent clubs as well as specialist collectors because of his expertise, published works, photography and passion for these plants. His extensive knowledge is so respected that Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who died in October, sought his advice for his personal cacti and succulent collection (which contained only legally propagated and purchased plants, Minnich notes).

Minnich travels the world to study and speak about cacti and succulents. He funds these trips with sales from Cactus Data Plants, which he operates on his growing grounds in Edgewood, New Mexico, in the mountains south of Santa Fe. The nursery specializes in show specimens, rare cacti and other succulents with an emphasis on species of these genera:

  • Ariocarpus
  • Astrophytum
  • Mammillaria
  • Gymnocalycium
  • Turbinicarpus
  • Melocactus
  • Copiapoa
  • Fouquieria
  • Pachypodium
  • Euphorbia
  • Cyphostemma
  • Adenium
  • Adenia

Minnich's far-ranging field trips, which stand at 127 and counting, have taken him throughout the United States, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa, Madagascar, Namibia, Yemen and Socotra.

Wendell 'Woody' Minnich
Minnich has taken more than 120 trips around the world to study cacti and succulents. Wendell 'Woody' Minnich

Sadly, his observations have caused him to worry about the sustainability of many of the world's cacti and succulents, particularly in recent years. To his dismay, he has seen entire populations virtually disappear in numerous regions. Part of the problem is habitat destruction caused by road building and other infrastructure improvements, or by business operations such as mining.

But the far bigger problem, he contends, is poaching by highly organized global smuggling rings. "It's happening across the board with cacti and succulents, and it's happening around the world," he says. "It's primarily being done by individuals from Korea, China and Japan, and then there are a few others doing this out of Russia and Central Europe."

What's driving the black market

Minnich blames two things for driving the global black market. One is the money that can be made from illegally collected plants. The other is our electronic world, which he says has made it easy for unscrupulous collectors to engage in the dark underworld of purchasing poached plants through a simple Google search.

The end buyer, he emphasizes, is usually not the average collector. Instead, it's often "serious and wealthy collectors around the world who are willing to pay $3,000, $5,000 or even $10,000 per plant for rare species."

"There are extremes that go beyond that," he adds. "There are people who have no trouble spending that kind of money. I see individuals spending big bucks on special rare show specimens all the time, some of these plants being imported field specimens."

Wealthy collectors are willing to spend huge sums for a single specimen because many rare species are unavailable in the nursery trade. Some species, for example, take many decades to reach a salable size, making them unprofitable to grow in a commercial greenhouse. As a result, some collectors with the necessary means turn to the black market for highly desirable plants that have been illegally taken from the wild. Possessing such plants, unfortunately, often gives collectors an ego-fulfilling status in the global cactus- and succulent-collecting community.

Minnich cites the small-growing Aztekium ritteri as an example. "A collector who has a 6-inch cluster of this plant can say to other collectors: 'Do you realize how rare this is? How special it is? Where are you going to see another one this big?' And when the average collector who does this for a hobby sees or hears about plants like this, they go, 'Wow! Have you seen so-and-so's collection?'"

How the smuggling works

Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus f. elephantidens
Poachers who wanted this cactus — known as Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus f. elephantidens — paid local farmers in Mexico to dig it up from its natural habitat. Wendell 'Woody' Minnich

Unlike in our previous story about succulent smuggling along North America's western coasts, poaching rings that operate in Mexico, South America, Madagascar and elsewhere aren't sending in foreigners to strip out plants. Instead, they get locals — often poor farmers or shepherds barely scraping a living from hardscrabble land on small ranches — to do their dirty work for them.

Minnich saw this with the cactus Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus f. elephantidens (pictured above) during a recent visit to its habitat in Queretaro in central Mexico. "It was just pretty much stripped out of its habitat," he says, noting that he has visited Mexico 70 times to study cacti and succulents. "In some cases, where I used to see thousands of plants, now there are almost none, and this scenario seems to be happening with many of the slow-growing, rare and hard-to-get other species."

Poachers first go into the habitat, he explains, to survey the plants and photograph them. If they want any, they talk to the locals — many of whom are very poor — and offer them money to collect the plants. To the locals, Minnich points out, succulents such as species of Ariocarpus, Pelecephora or Aztekium have no more value than a tumbleweed might to a person living in the Southwestern U.S. "As soon as anyone offers money for them, some of the locals are often more than happy to collect plants and save them for the return of the people who offered to buy them," Minnich says.

"What happened with the Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus f. elephantidens," he adds, "was that poachers who wanted these plants encouraged the locals to collect them, telling them they would come back and buy everything they dug up. As the cash-strapped famers in those areas would herd their goats, cattle and sheep, they would dig up every plant they saw and put them in their home. Then, when the foreigners returned, they paid the farmers for the plants."

In this case, according to Minnich, the locals most likely collected plants every day for months, eventually picking just about everything in the area: a total of roughly 10,000 plants. The poachers shipped these plants to Asia — Minnich believes it was Korea or China — where they supposedly sold them for $200,000. And how much did the poachers pay the farmers who collected the plants? "They may have made a few pesos per plant, or perhaps even more," he says. "For them to collect 100 plants and get many pesos for each? Well, from their perspective, that's fantastic! After all, they're only tumbleweeds to them!"

Smugglers double down on habitat destruction

Succulents and cacti smuggling
Piles of Copiapoa cinerea after being removed for urban development near Taltal, Chile. Wendell 'Woody' Minnich

Smugglers are taking advantage of habitat destruction to profit from poached plants. Minnich has seen this in Rayones, Mexico, where he has studied Aztekium ritteri.

"Many, many years ago when I first went there, you had to take a very rough road that went up a river and was washed out much of the year. But when you could get in, you would see literally millions of plants growing on the cliff faces. Because seasonal floods made it difficult to get in, they decided to put a road in above the river canyon. However, when workers cut the groove for the road, they pushed millions of pounds of dirt and rock over the sides. The debris either buried many populations of Aztekium ritteri or pushed the plants off the cliff faces into the canyon or river."

Despite the ecological damage, there were still populations left even after the road was built. "I used to visit the plants on cliffs, 20, 30 or 40 feet high," Minnich says. "There were clusters of a plant that in cultivation would take at least 10 years to grow to the size of a dime or a nickel, at best. But you could see these plants, and the clusters were sometimes probably many clusters anywhere from 6 inches to 6 feet across. Well, I was just there last year, and they appear to have all been collected. It's pretty obvious how they were collected. Once again, the locals were enticed to gather the plants, this time using ropes to rappel over the cliff edges to collect the plants."

Minnich saw something similar happen with habitat destruction near the northern border of San Luis Potosi in central Mexico involving Pelecephora asilliformis. In this case, the problem was due to collecting and mining operations.

"I took a group there to show them a population of the plants," Minnich says. "We had about a two-hour drive to get to the area, but when we arrived, we found absolutely zero plants where there used to be many thousands. We were visited by the miners who told us we couldn't be there. They said we were on their private land. We asked about the plants, and they said it didn't really matter because this whole area was going to be mined. Even if there are a few plants left, after the poachers took what they wanted, the mining will eventually destroy all of the remaining plants in that particular habitat."

Why field-collected plants are so desirable

Poachers find slow-growing succulents like Pelecephora asilliformis desirable because they can take many years to grow to a salable size. Wendell 'Woody' Minnich

Some of the world's rarest and most desirable cacti and succulents are not available as seed-grown plants from ethically responsible nurseries because the plants can take many years to reach a salable size. Copiapoa cinerea, which is native to Chile, is one example. In the field it gets a wonderful ash-gray body with deep black spines, two instances of field character that growers can't often duplicate in cultivation.

While the species appears to be generally safe in its habitat, at least for the moment, Minnich has observed a void of plants of a certain size in the wild. "I just got back from Chile, and the populations range from tiny seedlings all the way up to plants that may be many hundreds of years old," he says. "The void is in plants that are about the size of a tennis ball, some that are a little bigger and some that are a little smaller. That particular segment of the populations seems to be disappearing." There is speculation the plants are being sold by people in Russia, Minnich says, adding that he doesn't have solid evidence to back that up, other than a few people who have purchased the obviously field-collected Copiapoa cinerea and shown them to him. These individuals said their source, via a Google site, was from Russia.

Regardless, he says, Copiapoa cinerea in habitat can take 20 to 50 years to reach the size of a tennis ball. "Because it's not economically feasible for the nursery people to grow this species to this size — they don't have the time to do this and it's not worth their effort — international poachers have focused on this and other slow-growing species, such as those in the genera Ariocarpus and Pelecephora."

Plants grown in habitat often have more character than those grown in the ideal conditions of a greenhouse. Due to weather conditions and the need to adapt to sometimes harsh seasons, they may develop colors, forms and textures that are difficult to duplicate in cultivation. These special types of character are often only possible from the wild.

Where is law enforcement?

Dudleya farinosa, a type of succulent commonly known as bluff lettuce
California wildlife officials have recently made multiple arrests as part of a crackdown on the poaching of Dudleya farinosa, a succulent commonly known as bluff lettuce. Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock

Unlike with arrests and felony convictions in Southern California involving Dudleya farinosa poaching, Minnich is not aware of any strong enforcement in cacti and succulent smuggling outside the United States, with the exception of South Africa.

He has a friend who is a policeman in Springbok, the largest town in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, whose job for many years has been to stop poaching and the illegal collecting of plants and animals. "He goes with me and my friends who are serious succulent people to photograph plants," Minnich says. "He told me stories about people who have come there who want him to lead them around to photograph plants. He has refused in some cases because he knows their intent is to learn the location and then, when he is not there, to go back and collect plants in whatever numbers they can. These plants include Aloes, Haworthias, and some of the Mesembs in the family Azioacae, which includes Conophytums and Lithops."

As a result of his friend's vigilance, poachers from Japan were caught with illegally obtained species of rare and valuable Haworthias. There have been a few arrests that Minnich is aware of, with authorities seizing plants and cash. The authorities have obtained convictions and expelled the poachers, forbidding them from re-entering the country. "The sad part is that the confiscated plants often can't be put back in the field for one environmental or bureaucratic reason or another," Minnich says.

He thinks Asian countries are so involved in smuggling partly because, at least for now, they tend to have relatively lax regulations for bringing the plants across their borders. "If I ship 10,000 Ariocarpas kotschoubeyanus into China, it appears that nobody pays any attention. Nobody cares," he says. "They are supposed to, but they don't, or does money buy a way? I am very proud to say that I don't think this is happening at all in the United States right now. It took us long enough to get to this level, but I think we're on the right target as far as trying to protect environments."

Why you should care about poaching

Poachers from Japan recently were caught with illegally obtained species of Haworthias.
Poachers from Japan recently were caught with illegally obtained species of Haworthias. Arkadivna/Shutterstock

As a conservation leader for the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, Minnich is working to educate the public about plant poaching and why we should care.

It's not just that poaching strains wild populations so much that the plants, assuming any remain in certain locales, won't eventually return. (They can only do that if there's no habitat disturbance, which Minnich considers nearly impossible. Also, severely damaging one species may affect pollinators and other species in the region, as members of an ecosystem tend to depend on one another in various ways.)

It's more about his belief "that the world around us contains the most magnificent, beautiful, amazing array of plants and animals and geology. It should be protected for the plants and animals themselves, but also for our human species, for our heritage, for our relationship with the total world and for our future generations."

Minnich remembers stories from his father about going out to see wildlife with his grandfather, who was in the last American cavalry at Fort Yellowstone. "When I was quite young, my dad told me, 'Woody, there are things I have seen you will never see because they are all gone.' I have never forgotten that. It almost makes me cry when I think about it. But I don't miss them because I never knew they existed."

He sees awareness of wildlife conservation as one big picture. He recalls learning that Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, spent large sums every year protecting elephants from poachers. "Can you imagine being a grandparent or even a great-grandparent, and having a young child or children sitting around you or on your knee, and how heartbreaking it would be to say to them, 'I remember when I was a young person that I used to see this large animal in zoos, and they occurred in Africa and India and they had great big ears and a long trunk. They called that animal the elephant.'"

He uses this imagery in his talks about succulent and cactus conservation because "can you imagine me telling the same story but saying there was once a little plant they called a Mammalaria herrerae? Nobody would know what that plant is.

"The passion for protecting our plants is not as strong as it is for our animals because the awareness of the general populace, even in the countries where these plants grow, is so small," he says. "Yet our plants are just as fragile, or even more fragile, than many animals. When you have an environment and you have these little micro-environments within that environment, if you disturb one part of that environment, that ecosystem is damaged. There is a domino effect of the damage that carries on from plant to plant and from animal to animal."

He admits to feeling pessimistic that he can make the general public care enough about plants, like a little cactus called Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus, to stop the decline in cacti and succulents before some species vanish forever. "The other side of me," he says, "is that I still have to try! I am not going to walk away. I was a teacher for 30-some years, and I believe education is the only solution."

He's also optimistic that there just might be legions of people around the world helping him fulfill his mission. "I suspect my feelings are probably similar to those of most of the people who care about our Mother Earth and the magic of all life."