Disappearing cactus

  Andrew Catabriga has seen many cacti, and many of them appear where they shouldn’t. But for him, it was the first time I saw him in a scene like last year’s “Operation Atacama” in Italy. As a cactus expert and chairman of the Biodiversity and Conservation Association, Catabriga often assists the police in identifying strange specimens intercepted from tourists or post offices.

  People often forget that plants are also alive.

  This time, however, Catabriga was shocked by the sight in front of him. More than 1,000 of the world’s rarest cacti are sold on the black market for more than $1.2 million.
  Almost all protected plants are illegally exported from Chile, and some of them have survived for more than a century. Due to the cactus being sent back to Chile, relevant information about this operation is now being made public. This is probably the largest seizure of cacti in the world in the past 30 years. This also reveals that smugglers can make a lot of money from these illegal transactions.
  Seeing these seized cacti, Kataburi felt deep sorrow. He said: “After millions of years of evolution, cacti have adapted to the harshest living environment on earth. But now, they have to end their lives in such a way-just like commodities for sale. “The
  global illegal trade in plants is booming. “Almost every plant you can think of is being sold in some way,” said Eric Jeep, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cacti and other succulents are the hottest. In addition, people’s interest in orchids and carnivorous plants is also increasing day by day.
  Plant smuggling can cause serious consequences. Of the nearly 1,500 species of cacti in the world, more than 30% are threatened with extinction. Illegal collection is the main cause of the sharp decline in the number of cacti, affecting nearly half of the endangered species. However, this area of ​​illegal trade is often overlooked by people. This is a typical “plant blindness”-people often forget that plants are also alive.
  Jared Margulis, a geographer at the University of Alabama who studies plant smuggling, said: “If there were no plants, the basic operations of the earth would have stalled, but in contrast, people always care more about animals. Plant smuggling It’s not like the smuggling of’eyes and faces’ animals that have attracted enough attention.”
  However, the scale of the “Atacama Operation” is unprecedented, and it is also the largest known operation to return smuggled cacti. .
  Experts hope that “Operation Atacama” can become a turning point, allowing governments, collectors, eco-environmentalists and related industries to take action to deal with the thorny issue of international cactus smuggling. Pablo Guerrero, a botanist at the University of Concepcion in Chile, said: “This problem can no longer be taken lightly.”
| Things are precious |

  Selling cacti and other succulents has become a hot business today. Under the promotion of Internet celebrities, they are eye-catching and do not require much care, and they have become the darlings of social media. The outbreak of the new crown epidemic has exacerbated this trend, and many businesses have even sold out of stock.
  Ordinary people generally only collect the common species bred in the nursery, but for some professional collectors—mostly middle-aged and elderly men—their preference standards will be higher.
  Barbara Geqi, co-chair of the IUCN Expert Panel on Cacti and Succulents, said: “The reason why people have a strong interest and enthusiasm for these plants is because they are unique and rare.”
  Many cacti grow in restricted areas. Yes, some grow only on steep limestone cliffs in Mexico, and others grow on a piece of sand less than a square mile off the coast of Peru. Due to their extremely slow growth rate, larger cacti will be more sought after. These cacti may take decades or even hundreds of years to grow. Therefore, excessive collection will threaten the survival of cacti. However, it is this scarcity that collectors value.
  Legalization of trading in rare species is basically impossible. For this to happen, all types of cacti and succulents need to obtain relevant permits. But most countries, including the United States, prohibit the collection of cacti and succulents from the wild. Jeep said: “You can’t collect cacti on public land at all. Moreover, you need to try your luck
  if you want to collect cacti in the vast expanse of the wild.” Therefore, as long as you find a cactus, you can conduct illegal transactions on the spot. Protected wild cactus species are openly displayed in high-end plant stores in Japan, and sellers all over the world also advertise these plants on eBay, Instagram, Yiji and Facebook. These online advertisements usually include a disclaimer stating that Cactus does not have the necessary license for legal transactions. Some smugglers even broadcast live in the wild, asking customers directly what kind of plant they want. Very few smugglers are caught or prosecuted. Collectors in the U.S., U.K., Europe, and Japan have contributed to the growth of this illegal transaction.
  There is no relevant estimate on the scale of the cactus smuggling market, but many experts believe that the market is expanding day by day. Jeff Pavla, president of the American Cactus and Succulents Association, said: “20 years ago, this was a small problem, but now it is big enough to cause attention. The entire cactus population is in danger of being’sucked up’. ”
| Smuggling Drama |

  In February last year, after receiving an informative report, the Italian police searched the home of the well-known cactus collector and seller Andrea Piombetti in Senigallia on the Adriatic coast.
  In a temporary greenhouse, the police found about 1,000 protected Chilean cacti of the genus Draconis and Aurora, ranging in size from baseball to beach ball. The police confiscated these plants as well as Piombet’s cell phone and passport.
  This is not the first time Piombetty has been accused of selling cacti. In 2013, the police seized 600 Chilean cacti from him. However, due to delays in handling the case and exceeding the statute of limitations, the case was not filed in the end.

  Lieutenant Colonel Simon Cecchini, the head of the wildlife department of the local police department responsible for the 2013 and 2020 investigations, said: “Many environmental crimes in Italy have this problem. These smugglers will not be able to commit the crime four or five years after committing the crime. We have been punished. This time, our prosecutor said that we will act as soon as possible to avoid the situation in 2013.”
  Catabriga and other experts conducted a series of analysis tests on the seized cacti to confirm that the plants were not locally grown. , But from the Chilean Atacama Desert. Cecchini and his colleagues discovered that Piombetty had been to Chile seven times, the most recent one being in December 2019. These plants were collected by Piombeti in the Atacama Desert near Chile’s Pandeazúcar National Park.
  Cecchini’s investigation revealed that Piombeti mailed the collected cacti to Greece and Romania, because customs inspections in these two countries are looser than those in Italy. Due to the tenacious vitality of cacti, they can survive long-distance mailing even without soil, water and light.
  Cecchini found a large number of illegal sales records in Piombet’s mobile phone, as well as a receipt from a Japanese company that placed a large number of orders almost every month. Based on the quoted prices in the records, the police calculated that the value of these cacti in illegal transactions exceeded 1 million euros.
  Cecchini said: “Italy should impose harsher penalties on such environmental crimes.”
| An unprecedented journey home |

  Catabriga temporarily transferred these cacti to a botanical garden in Milan for care, many of which are in very poor health. In addition, the top priority is how to properly handle these cacti.
  Usually, the Italian police will directly destroy the seized cacti, and the rare species will be sent to the botanical garden. But “Operation Atacama” is different. The number of cacti seized in this operation is huge, and some are even critically endangered species. These plants have very strict requirements for the living environment and can only grow in certain areas of Chile. For them, staying in the botanical garden is tantamount to being sentenced to death.
  At first, it was discussed that it is better to send these plants to botanical gardens in Italy and other parts of Europe. But Catabriga, Cecchini, and Guerrero insisted on returning them to Chile, not only to protect these plants, but also to play a symbolic role.
  Last year, they worked with Geqi and others to spend a lot of time coordinating Italian, Chilean, and international agencies to obtain permission to ship these plants back to their hometowns. Guerrero said: “This is the first time that smuggled plants are sent home. No one knows what the specific procedures are.”

Catabriga looks at the smuggled cacti seized by the Italian police.

  In the end, the parties agreed to the transfer of the plants, but Chile and Italy were unwilling to pay about US$3,600 for shipping.
  Gec managed to get about 3/4 of the freight payment from the World Conservation Union, and Milan’s Botanical Garden also collected some of it. The rest of the money is paid by Liz Vader, the owner of a plant shop in Baltimore, USA, which regularly donates to environmental organizations.
  Finally, at the end of April, 844 cacti returned to Chile. About 100 strains died, and 84 strains remained in Milan for research.
  Catabriga uses video connections every day to confirm whether these plants have been properly taken care of during the quarantine period. Martinez Aguilera, head of the forest inspection department of the Chilean National Forest Company, said that the ultimate goal is to “allow most plants to return to the natural environment they shouldn’t have left.”