The majestic saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert is more than a symbol of the southwest—it's also worth some serious bills. Cactus rustlers regularly heist the many-armed, spiny behemoths from Saguaro National Park and sell them for as much as $1,000 each. But the National Park Service hopes to thwart would-be saguaro swipers by implanting dime-sized microchips into marquee specimens.
The chips will enable rangers to track down and identify stolen saguaros, and wand-equipped rangers can scan trucks and other vehicles for concealed cacti within the park. Officials hope this will curb the rampant theft that occurs in the park to feed a thriving saguaro black market. Last year, officials caught robbers who'd dug up 17 saguaros and hidden them for later transportation.
The number of saguaros statewide is anyone's guess. "How many stars are there in the sky?" said Jim McGinnis, who supervises the Arizona Department of Agriculture's office of special investigations and has been its chief "cactus cop" for years.
"Saguaros are the plant that gets the most money," said McGinnis. "Everybody wants a saguaro in their front yard."
Saguaros are sensitive giants that can live for up to 200 years, grow 50 feet tall and weigh several tons, and take 50 years to flower. You'd think being festooned with sharp needles would be enough to keep people from grabbing them, but maybe this new technology will further help cut down cactus crime.
Meanwhile, I have a new career ambition: To become a cactus cop. I bet they carry a sick badge.
— Ted Alvarez