Rome – With a search warrant, an Italian wildlife police unit entered the home of a suspected cactus trafficker and found more than 1,000 rare cacti poached in a closed room in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The February 2020 find was one of the biggest cactus blasts and sparked international efforts by cactus experts, police, environmentalists and governments to return the plants to their countries of origin.
In Senigallia, a town on the Adriatic coast of central Italy, Lt. Col. Simone Cecchini and his team found hundreds of Copiapoa and Eriosyce cacti uprooted from the desert. They also found suspect traffickers’ passports, computers and other documents that helped them rebuild its operations.
The suspect, an Italian in his forties, traveled seven times to Chile, from where he sent boxes of cacti to Romania and Greece. It was then imported to Italy and sold mainly to Asian customers.
“I never imagined there would be such a market. I never thought I could send a cactus to Japan for 1200 euros. [$1,430]Said Cecchini.
He is expected to contact Andrea Catabriga, president of the Protecting Biodiversity Association, to examine the specimens and confirm that they were looted from the Chilean desert, which is considered the driest non-polar desert in the world. I asked. This area, west of the Andes, was used by scientists as a place to simulate the Martian expedition.
In a small town on the outskirts of Bologna, Catabriga has several greenhouses that legally grow 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 those taken from the desert.
Cattabriga immediately contacted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and has a Red List of threatened species in the world. According to the IUCN, about a third of the 1,478 species of cacti are endangered.
While there are international concerns about the risk of rhinos, tigers and pandas becoming extinct, few are aware or concerned about the potential extinction of cactus species.
“I think part of this is because plants are everywhere, so we take them for granted,” said Barbara Goettsch, co-chair of the IUCN Cactus and Succulents Group. .. “In some cases of cacti, they are more endangered than birds and mammals.”
Cacti are becoming increasingly popular both as collectibles and as foliage plants. In recent years, demand has increased in China, Japan and Thailand.
Cattabriga and Cecchini determined that the scale of the seizure requires historic action. The factory had to be sent back to Chile.
“When a stolen work of art is recovered, it will be returned,” Cattabriga said. “It had to be the same for these cacti.
But sending them back has never been as easy as it seems. Immediately after the attack, Italy was stranded for the COVID-19 pandemic. The confiscated cacti were transferred to the greenhouse in the botanical garden of the University of Milan. Then they started a year-long effort to break down the bureaucracy and find money for remittances.
In Chile, Pablo Guerrero of the Faculty of Botanical Sciences at the University of Concepcion began accepting plants in collaboration with the National Forest Corporation (CONAF) of Chile.
Finally, more than a year after the cactus was discovered, a recovery plan was put in place. Cattabriga has joined the board of Cecchini’s wildlife team, which includes 844 plants to be returned to Chile. Of those confiscated from the suspect, 107 died.
On April 18, 2021, the plant arrived at Santiago airport and was 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 urge them to return to the Atacama Desert. But Guerrero worries that the plant will not be able to tolerate its direct planting. He wants a special botanical garden that can recreate the natural habitat of the Coquimbo region.
Meanwhile, the suspect and accomplice will be prosecuted and brought to justice in Ancona, Italy. He declined to speak to the Associated Press. Cecchini also said those who worked with the suspect would be placed in Europol’s database and monitored.
“Most people in Chile don’t think we poach any species. They believe that poaching concerns rhinos and elephants which are very far away. They think it’s appropriate. I don’t know I’m here with our cactus, ”Gerrero said.