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On the trail of cactus rustlers

Unscrupulous collectors and growers are raiding the Chihuahuan Desert of its rare cacti, and the ecosystem shows signs of damage.

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The sparsely populated Chihuahuan Desert has for centuries been a breeding ground for rustlers, poachers, and outlaws.

Tales still linger of corrupt cowboys stampeding herds of cattle northward through Texas, using six- shooters to defend themselves if necessary. While the practice continues today in more sophisticated fashion, lawmen are increasingly turning their attention to a different kind of desert swindler.

These thieves don't dodge the cacti that poke out of the dry earth; they stop and dig them up.

Demand for wild cactus and succulent plants is growing so rapidly that scientists and environmentalists worry about the survival of some of the rarest species in the vast Chihuahuan Desert, only 3 percent of which is protected land.

"Because of the booming market for desert plants used in landscaping, and over enthusiasm by private collectors, we are running the risk of losing certain species," says Christopher Robbins, a botanist and author of "Prickly Trade," a new report by the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

The Chihuahuan Desert - one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world - is home to almost a quarter of the 1,500 cactus species known to science, including many found nowhere else on earth.

This causes "cactophiles" to quiver - and sometimes go to unscrupulous lengths to obtain the next addition to their collection, says Mr. Robbins.

David Thomas understands the allure. He's been a succulent enthusiast for more than a quarter of a century. In Texas, where he lives, laws permit landowners to harvest cacti from their property or give others permission to do so, and many who view the plants as nuisances are happy to be rid of them.

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