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Tiny microchips protect the ‘giants of the desert,’ the saguaro cactus

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Saguaro cacti populate the deserts of Arizona and northern Mexico. Photo: iStock

Thinking of buying a “hot” cactus? Think again.

Thousands of majestic “giants of the desert,” a symbol of the western United States and northern Mexico, are now protected with microchips.

The saguaro cactus is as iconic as it is slow-growing and enduring. Within 95 to 100 years, a saguaro can reach a height of 16 feet, and could start to produce its first arm. Some saguaros have dozens of arms, while some have none.At full height, they can be 45 feet tall.

A saguaro needs 200 years to reach its full height. Stealing one of these iconic jewels requires about 30 minutes and a flatbed truck.

They are exclusive to the Sonoran Desert, which covers 120,000 square miles of Arizona, California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur.

Rangers in the Saguaro National Park, in the desert’s Rincon Mountain District about 10 miles east of Tucson, preserve Sonoran Desert landscapes, fauna and flora, including the giant saguaro.

“We know that there are people who in the past have stolen our saguaros, people who are dedicated to gardening and who know they can sell them. A small saguaro between 0.9 and 1.5 meters can be sold for up to $300,” said Ray O’Neil, chief ranger at the park.

The technology is similar to microchips placed inside a pet. A special reader detects which cacti originated in the national park. Authorities can then scan nurseries or private homes to track down stolen cacti, but O’Neil says the program is mainly preventative.

Already, publicity from the local newspaper in March has prevented thefts, he believes.

Stealing a saguaro from the park is a minor felony and suspects face fines. So far, nobody has been prosecuted.

Of approximately one million saguaros in the park, 2,000 have received the microchip.

“The cost of the program is relatively low; each microchip costs about $2,” said O’Neil.

A saguaro can measure up to 15.25 meters high and its use to decorate the entrances of homes is very popular in Arizona, hence the demand.

Made famous in old cowboy movies, saguaros are in demand by landscapers. They are even thought to raise the value of one’s home.

But their long life is under constant threat, not just by theft but also from fires, invasive species and vandalism. A few years ago, someone attacked several saguaros with a machete; more recently, someone used one for target practice, riddling it with bullets.

Source: EFE

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