Rare, poached cacti found in Italian raid and sent home to native Chile
Armed with a search warrant, the Italian police wildlife protection unit entered the home of an alleged cactus trafficker, finding more than 1,000 rare cacti poached in Chile’s Atacama Desert in a locked room.
This February 2020 find has become one of the largest cactus busts known and the catalyst for an international effort among cactus experts, police, environmentalists and governments to return the plants to their countries of origin.
What Lieutenant Colonel Simone Cecchini and his team found in Senigallia, a town on the Adriatic coast of central Italy, were hundreds of Copiapoa cinerea and Eriosyce cacti that had been uprooted from the desert. They also found the passport, computer and other documents of the alleged trafficker which helped them to reconstruct his operation.
The suspect, an Italian in his forties, had made seven trips to Chile, from where he had sent boxes of cacti to Romania and Greece. They were then brought to Italy and sold to customers, mainly in Asia.
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“I never imagined there could be a market like this. I never thought that a cactus could be mailed to Japan for 1,200 euros (NZ $ 2,050), said Cecchini.
He contacted Andrea Cattabriga, president of the Association for Biodiversity and Conservation, and asked him to examine the specimens to confirm that they had been looted from the Chilean desert, which is considered the most non-polar desert. dry in the world. The region, west of the Andes, has been used by scientists as a site to simulate expeditions to Mars.
In a small town on the outskirts of Bologna, Cattabriga has several greenhouses where he legally cultivates a wide variety of rare cacti from certified seeds. He then tries to recreate their natural habitat and uses cotton swabs for pollination. This gave him the ability to distinguish between those grown in greenhouses and others taken from the desert.
Cattabriga immediately contacted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a Red List of endangered species in the world. According to the IUCN, about a third of the 1,478 cactus species are classified as threatened.
Yet while there is international concern about the risk of rhinos, tigers or pandas becoming extinct, few are aware or concerned about the possibility that a cactus species becomes extinct.
“I think part of it is because plants are everywhere. So we take them for granted, ”said Barbara Goettsch, co-chair of the IUCN Cacti and Succulents Group. “In the specific case of cacti, they are more threatened with extinction than birds or mammals.”
Cacti have become increasingly popular both as collectibles and as decorative houseplants. In recent years, demand has increased in China, Japan and Thailand.
Cattabriga and Cecchini decided that the scale of the seizure required historic action: the plants had to be returned to Chile.
“When a stolen work of art is recovered, it is returned,” Cattabriga said. “It had to be the same for these cacti.
But sending them back was easier said than done. Shortly after the seizure, Italy went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The confiscated cacti were transferred to a greenhouse in the Botanical Garden of the University of Milan. Then they launched a year-long effort to cut red tape and find the funds for the transfer.
In Chile, Pablo Guerrero of the Department of Botany at the University of Concepcion began to organize with the National Forestry Society of Chile (CONAF) to receive the plants.
Finally, more than a year after the discovery of the cacti, the recovery plan was put in place. Cattabriga joined officers from Cecchini’s wildlife team, packing 844 plants to be sent back to Chile. Of those confiscated from the suspected trafficker, 107 had died.
On April 18, 2021, the plants arrived at Santiago airport and were taken to a special quarantine center on the outskirts of the Chilean capital. They will stay there until August.
Their future is still uncertain. Politicians are pushing for them to be sent back to the Atacama Desert. But Guerrero worries that the plants will not survive this direct planting. He is pushing for a special botanical garden in the Coquimbo region where their natural habitat can be reproduced.
Meanwhile, the suspected trafficker and an accomplice have been charged and will stand trial in Ancona, Italy. He declined to speak to the Associated Press. Cecchini also said that the people who collaborated with the suspect have been registered in a Europol database and will be monitored.
“Most people in Chile don’t think we have species poaching. They believe that poaching concerns rhinos or elephants far away. They don’t know it’s here with our cacti, ”Guerrero said.