Illegal Trade and Climate Change Push Chile's Copiapoa Cacti to the Brink of Extinction

Illegal Trade and Climate Change Push Chile's Copiapoa Cacti to the Brink of Extinction

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Chhe, License: Public Domain

The Copiapoa cacti, native to Chile's Atacama Desert, are at severe risk of extinction. According to the latest report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 82 percent of Copiapoa species face the threat of extinction.

This marks a significant increase from 55 percent in 2013, Carbon Pulse reports. The rising threat level can be attributed to illegal trade, habitat destruction, and climate change.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Stickpen, License: Public Domain
Chile’s Copiapoa cacti are facing extinction.


Illegal Trade and Social Media

Copiapoa cacti have become a popular commodity among collectors in Europe and Asia. Social media platforms like Instagram and eBay have exacerbated the issue by providing a marketplace for illegal trade. Collectors, driven by the desire for unique and rare species, often purchase these cacti without realizing their endangered status, reports PBS.

Pablo Guerrero, a botanist at the University of Concepción in Chile, highlighted the impact of social media on this trade in a conversation with Euro News. "It is easy to distinguish if Copiapoa cacti have been poached or grown in a greenhouse. Poached Copiapoa have a grey tone and are coated in a dusty-looking bloom that protects the plants in one of the driest deserts on Earth, whereas cultivated plants appear greener."

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Chhe, License: Public Domain 
82% of Copiapoa species are now threatened.


Habitat Destruction

The Atacama Desert, known for its harsh conditions, provides a unique environment for the Copiapoa cacti. However, infrastructural developments such as road construction and housing expansions have made these plants more accessible to poachers, The New York Times reports.

This increased accessibility has significantly contributed to the decline in their population. Climate change further complicates the situation. The desert, one of the driest places on Earth, is experiencing changes in weather patterns that affect the cacti's ability to survive.

"These plants play a very important role in the environment," said Bárbara Goettsch, co-chair of the IUCN's Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group, told PBS. "There’s a lot of insects that feed on the nectar of the plants."

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot, License: Public Domain 
Illegal trade is driving the decline of Copiapoa cacti.


International Cactus Trafficking

In recent years, several high-profile cases of cactus trafficking have brought attention to the issue. In February 2020, Italian police seized over 1,000 rare cacti, including Copiapoa, from a well-known collector.

The cacti, valued at over $1.2 million, were poached from Chile and transported to Italy illegally, reports The New York Times. Operation Atacama, as it was called, highlighted the scale of the illegal cactus trade and the need for stricter regulations and enforcement.

"Society as a whole can no longer continue to have a naïve view of this problem," Guerrero said.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot, License: Public Domain
Social media has fueled the demand for rare cacti.


Conservation Efforts and Solutions

Efforts to combat the illegal trade and preserve Copiapoa cacti are ongoing. Conservationists advocate for sustainable practices, such as artificial greenhouse propagation, to meet market demand without harming wild populations.

"We also need to work on cultures of collecting where people want to fast track obtaining mature, large specimens of these species," said Jared Margulies, a political ecologist at the University of Alabama, told PBS.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot, License: Public Domain
Copiapoa cacti are coveted by collectors in Europe and Asia.


Looking Ahead

The fight to save Copiapoa cacti is far from over. As long as demand for rare and exotic plants exists, the threat of illegal trade will persist. However, with continued conservation efforts, stricter enforcement of laws, and greater awareness among consumers, there is hope for these unique desert dwellers.

The survival of Copiapoa cacti depends on a collective effort to protect their natural habitat, enforce international regulations, and educate the public about the importance of conservation. Only then can we ensure that these remarkable plants continue to thrive in the Atacama Desert for generations to come.

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Matthew Russell

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.

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