3 Poached Treasures

Backcountry crooks ransack public lands, stealing the natural prizes most coveted by collectors–and vulnerable species and hikers alike suffer when these icons vanish from the trails to resurface on the black market.

Saguaro cacti

Undeterred by fines and spines, cactus rustlers uproot seven-ton saguaros and load them onto flatbed trucks under cover of darkness. These iconic desert plants–which feed and shelter Gila woodpeckers and Mexican long-tongued bats–fetch $50 per foot (plus $100 per arm) for landscaping in booming southwestern cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Resource specialists at Nevada's Lake Mead National Recreation Area are fighting back by injecting local cacti with microchip transponders to thwart thieves.


In 1991, an allosaurus skeleton filched from BLM land near Fremont Junction, Utah, sold for $400,000. And five years ago, officials nabbed three poachers trying to steal prehistoric rhino bones at Nebraska's Oglala National Grassland. Even the tracks of Jurassic-era creatures can go for tens of thousands of dollars on eBay or at mineral shows. Rangers at Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park estimate that 12 tons of fossilized wood vanish each year, threatening the park's signature attraction.


Posing as birdwatchers and toting collapsible nets and binoculars, butterfly poachers slip into national parks such as Mesa Verde and Death Valley. The rare species they seek–like the Papilio Indra kaibabensis, a type of swallowtail found exclusively in the Grand Canyon–can fetch up to $500 apiece from Japanese collectors. On a large scale, bug smuggling can be temptingly lucrative: In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovered 2,200 rare butterflies worth a total of $300,000 from the apartment of a single California poacher.