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October 21, 2008

Can embedded RFID chips halt an epidemic of cactus theft?


They're the new new thing in cactus theft deterrence: microchips smaller than a dime implanted in young (30 to 50 years old) saguaro cactuses (above) in the Sonoran Desert, 120,000 square miles covering parts of Arizona, California and Baja California and Sonora in Mexico, in an attempt to stop large-scale pilfering of the prized plants, which can bring $1,000 or more.

Here's Ross D. Franklin's Associated Press story as it appeared in the October 12, 2008 New York Times.

    Theft Deterrence for an Arizona Icon

    Anyone swiping a saguaro cactus from the desert could soon be hauling off more than just a giant plant.

    National Park Service officials plan to imbed microchips in saguaros, Arizona’s signature plant, to protect them from thieves who rip them from the desert to sell them to landscapers, nurseries and homeowners.

    The primary objective is deterrence, but the chips also will help track down and identify stolen saguaros, said Bob Love, chief ranger at Saguaro National Park near Tucson.

    “There’s probably more of it that occurs than we’re aware of,” Mr. Love said.

    The largest theft occurred last year, when 17 saguaros were dug up and stashed for transportation later. The culprits were caught, but in other cases three to five plants were taken.

    Saguaros are unique to the Sonoran Desert, 120,000 square miles covering parts of Arizona, California and Baja California and Sonora in Mexico.

    They can grow to 50 feet, sprout gaggles of arms and weigh several tons. They can take 50 years to flower and 70 years to sprout an arm. And they identify Arizona’s landscape in everything from Road Runner cartoons to the state quarter.

    A 2000 census of the two districts that make up the park estimated that there were 1.3 million saguaros there.

    Plant pilferers typically go after the younger specimens in the 4- to 7-foot range, which are probably 30 to 50 years old. Plants of that size typically fit in the bed of a pickup. They can bring $1,000 or more.

    “Saguaros are the plant that gets the most money,” said Jim McGinnis, who supervises the Arizona Department of Agriculture’s office of special investigations and is its chief cactus cop. “Everybody wants a saguaro in their front yard.”

    The officials at Saguaro National Park, which covers 91,000 acres, are still planning the microchip project, said Mr. Love, the park ranger. A microchip like those implanted to identify dogs — smaller than a dime — is to be inserted into the plant with a syringe.

    Mr. Love said each chip was uniquely encoded. Waving a special wand within about a foot powers the chip to reveal its code.

    He said it was common to see trucks carrying cactus on roads near the park. “So if we saw something like that, we could momentarily stop them and wave these wands over them,” he said.

    Officials could also go to nurseries or landscape businesses and learn if their saguaros came from the park, he said.

    Mr. Love said the park would have to go through a study to ensure the chips do not harm the plants or create air quality, soil or endangered species issues.

    The microchips cost about $4.50 each. Wands or scanners to read them range from $500 to $2,500, Mr. Love said. Other costs include labor to insert the chips and to monitor for cactus thefts.

    “We would likely not just go out and implant, but would gather data, G.P.S. the locations, and record heights and widths and measures,” Mr. Love said.

    The Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona and Nevada began putting microchips in barrel cactuses in 1999.

    “Not only has it helped us with reducing the level of cactus that’s being poached, but it also has helped us with cataloging our resources within the park,” said Andrew Munoz, a Lake Mead spokesman.

October 21, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I wish somebody would steal kudzu and old jelly-jar drinking glasses.

Don't those things have big sharp spiny thorns? And anyhow if all somebody wants is one in their front yard, can't they be made out of rubber or fiberglass or something, that would look just like the real thing? Since they only grow about an inch every year or so, nobody would ever know the difference. You could even have sneak out every now & then and glue on buds & flowers so they'd look like they were blooming, if that was important to you.

Posted by: Flautist | Oct 21, 2008 1:40:06 PM

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