House-plant craze leaves fragile landscape ransacked

Cacti that belong in the desert are being dug up and sold to satisfy international buyers.

Copiapoa cacti growing across the Atacama coastal desert in Chile.
Copiapoa cacti are being ripped up by poachers across the Atacama coastal desert in Chile. Source: Pablo C. Guerrero

A consumer craze for ornamental house plants has driven a family of cacti to the brink of extinction. Experts are warning over 80 per cent are in trouble because of the illegal trade.

Copiapoa cacti are highly desirable to collectors and this makes them a target for poachers who dig them up, trash the surrounding landscape, and then list them online in international markets.

They’re flowering, pudgy, spikey and they often grow in clusters and have become a fashionable decor item in homes. The problem is that they belong in the desert in Chile, not on windowsills in Asia and Europe.

The warning has been issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which updated its Red List of threatened species this week. The review found 82 per cent of Copiapoa are now threatened, up from 55 per cent in just 11 years.

Close up of Copiapoa cacti growing across the Atacama coastal desert in Chile.
Experts say it's easy to tell the difference between wild cacti (pictured) and those grown in greenhouses. Source: Pablo C. Guerrero

Pablo Guerrero, member of the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group, said it’s “easy” for collectors to distinguish whether a specimen has been poached or raised 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,” he said.

Poachers are just one of the problems the 32 species of Copiapoa face across their home range of the Atacama coastal desert — a 1,600-kilometre-long strip west of the Andes Mountains. Development and climate change are also threats.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.