Study: Collectors plundering cactuses to extinction

October 5, 2015

Black-market collectors willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare cactuses are putting more than 30 percent of the species at risk for extinction, according to a paper released Monday.

The first global assessment of the problem, completed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, revealed that cactuses are the fifth-most-threatened group of species — topping mammals and birds. Echinopsis pampana is an endangered cactus A small cactus with long thorns and brilliant flowers, the Echinopsis pampana, a native of Peru, has been stolen for the ornamental plant trade so much that at least half of the population has disappeared in the past 15 years. Photo by: Pete Cupial-Jones via Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

Arizona State University conservation biologist and wildlife ecologist Jan Schipper contributed to the study. Deep-pocketed collectors hungry for the rarest of the rare are driving the trend, Schipper said.

“It’s not the quantity,” he said. “It’s like orchid collectors. They’re going after the rare stuff. They want the stuff no one else has. … Germany does a lot of this type of collecting. I’m not singling out a particular culture, but they do. People will fly to Mexico and go to some of these localities where cactus have been harvested in the past.”

The depletion is similar to what is seen in the theft, looting and trafficking of antiquities and archaeological treasures.

“Any time collectors after rarities are involved, you’re going to get that,” said Schipper, a conservation research postdoctoral fellow in a partnership between the ASU School of Life Sciences and the Phoenix Zoo-Arizona Center for Nature Conservation. “They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, easily.”

Some species of cactus have tiny populations, as small as a single group on a hillside in remote areas, he said.

“Scientists have been studying populations for 10 years, and they go back and they’re all gone,” he said.

The seven-most-threatened taxonomic groups assessed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are cycads, ancient seed plants that resemble palms (63 percent at risk for extinction); amphibians (41 percent); conifers (34 percent); warm-water reef-building corals (33 percent); cactuses (31 percent); mammals (25 percent); and birds (13 percent).

The findings are disturbing, said Inger Andersen, IUCN director general. The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization.

“They confirm that the scale of the illegal wildlife trade — including trade in plants — is much greater than we had previously thought, and that wildlife trafficking concerns many more species than the charismatic rhinos and elephants which tend to receive global attention,” he said. “We must urgently step up international efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade and strengthen the implementation of the CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered if we want to prevent the further decline of these species.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments aiming to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Eighty-six percent of threatened cactuses used in horticulture are taken from wild populations, the report said.

“European and Asian collectors are the biggest contributors to the illegal cactus trade,” the report read. “Specimens taken from the wild are particularly sought after due to their rarity.”

The results of the global health check came as a shock to Barbara Goettsch, lead author of the study and co-chair of IUCN’s Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group.

“We did not expect cacti to be so highly threatened and for illegal trade to be such an important driver of their decline,” Goettsch said. “Their loss could have far-reaching consequences for the diversity and ecology of arid lands and for local communities dependent on wild-harvested fruit and stems.”

A small cactus with long thorns and brilliant red flowers, the Echinopsis pampana, native of the puna desert of Peru, has been stolen for the ornamental plant trade so much that at least half of the population has disappeared in the past 15 years. Places it could once be found in have now been covered by housing. The species is listed as endangered.

“I definitely didn’t expect cactus to come higher than mammals and birds in terms of threat, but it did,” Schipper said. “That kind of stuff can be controlled, it just needs legislative and legal framework and some law enforcement to back that up. … Most countries, especially in some of these areas, don’t have that capacity.”

“Recognition of the problem is the first step,” he added.

The study was released Monday in the journal Nature Plants.

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU News

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Business students exchange ideas on ASU visit from China

October 5, 2015

Paul Yang wasn’t expecting an ambient temperature of 108 degrees when he agreed to play golf with Arizona State University professor Buck Pei, but he played through all 18 holes anyway. 

Yang was in Phoenix as part of the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Global Financial Management program, a partnership between ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance (SAIF) for senior corporate and government leaders in China.

In the past 10 years the amount of wealth in China has increased dramatically — on a national level, an individual level and a corporate level. This pace of change is profoundly affecting not only China's domestic situation, but also the global economy.

As a result, industry leaders like Yang are seeing a huge demand for wealth management in the country — one that Pei, executive dean of the W. P. Carey School, sought to address when he established the three-year doctoral program in 2012.

“The demand for DBA programs, especially in global financial management, presents a huge opportunity for us to recruit the highest potential candidates who will have important influence over the future of China’s financial market and government sectors,” Pei said.

Along with a cohort of 13 other students from China — who include successful managers, heads of banks, heads of public trade companies and market developers — Yang spent four days in Arizona visiting companies like Honeywell, GoDaddy and Charles Schwab to speak with experts in the field.

Group poses for a photo.

Chinese executives tour ASU

Paul Yang, left, and Michael M.J. Sun listen as they explore the Biodesign Institute on the Tempe campus as part of their scholastic program, while on a tour of the U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Three days in New York City on Wall Street was also on their itinerary.

The founder and managing partner of his own asset-management company, Yang is using this opportunity to look for international investment opportunities.

“Companies like GoDaddy, they’re very big companies but they have very little exposure to Asia, to China, which is such a big market,” he said.

Michael Sun, deputy chief executive of the Bank of East Asia (China), said that what they learned in the program and during their visit to the Valley has given them valuable perspective.

“There are several companies in China that can learn from the ideas of [these] companies,” Sun said.

Conversely, both Yang and Sun agree that American companies can also benefit from the program because it allows for invaluable international exchange among industry players.

“Through this ASU program, [American companies] can network with myself and my fellow classmates. … With our help, they can see crystal clear how to get into the Asian market,” Yang said.

Co-director of the program and faculty adviser to Yang, Bin Gu says the exchange between faculty and students in the program parallels the exchange between the students and U.S. companies.

“They have lots of insights and they have lots of interesting questions in mind, and in many cases we don’t have those answers. We learn from them, too,” he said.

Lisa Robbins

Assistant Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications