CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — When the "cactus cops" caught up with Guadalupe Falcon last year, he and four other men were hacking away at the bottom of a gangly, twin-armed saguaro on federal land near a remote gravel mine east of town.
A white Ford pickup with the logo of a local cactus dealer was parked a few feet away. The ground was littered with tools of the trade for the seasoned saguaro thief, including axes, shovels, levers and a cradle and carpet needed to hoist and cushion the prickly, fragile succulent that can live 200 years, grow 50 feet and weigh 12 tons.
Nearby were several saguaro-sized holes in the ground. The score, pretty typical in Arizona's losing war with cactus rustlers: One saguaro saved, seven missing and presumed sold on the black market where prime plants can fetch upward of $1,000 or more.
"You got to catch them in the act," sighed Dan Danielson, one of the state agriculture agents who nabbed Falcon. "It's about the only way to stop them."
The stately, photogenic saguaro (pronounced sah-wah-roh), probably the quintessential cactus and the backdrop for countless campfire scenes in countless dusty old Hollywood Westerns, is under siege.
"It's quite possible the saguaro will be extinct in 40 years," warned ecologist Doug Fuller, who has tracked the cactus trade for the World Wildlife Fund.
While most experts view such a forecast as alarmist, they still agree that the saguaro population is reeling from both a benign and criminal assault by man. "Within five or 10 years it's going to be difficult to find a really good Saguaro," predicted Larry Richards, a native plant law specialist with the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture.
There are more than 5,000 varieties of cactus in the world, but none has come to symbolize the species more than the saguaro, known scientifically as cereus giganticus --the gigantic candle. Indeed, some adult plants resemble huge candles. But many eventually develop long, spiny arms that, under the spell of shimmering moonlight and a vivid imagination, make them seem more like giant scarecrows or even enormous, landlocked octopuses.
Found primarily in southern Arizona, the plant is emblazoned on the center of the state's license plates, and the white blossoms that appear on its branch tips in the late spring have been officially designated the state flower. But while Arizonans clearly love their saguaros, they may, unfortunately, be loving them to death.
Poaching is one manifestation. The king of the southwest cacti is prized by landscapers and homeowners in desert communities, so burgeoning development in Arizona, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and other rain-starved communities has turned it into a hot commodity in both the legal and illicit plant trade.
They have also been bulldozed or transplanted by the tens of thousands to make way for new roads, shopping malls and subdivisions. Outside the cities, grazing cattle often tromp over or munch on seedlings, or on the paloverde trees that provide vital shade for fragile young saguaros.
Many saguaros are also squashed in their infancy by off-road vehicles. Meanwhile, vandals routinely shoot them up with guns or bows and arrows.
A decade ago, one wounded saguaro got its revenge when, weakened by gunfire, it fell on top of the sharpshooter who was using it for target practice and killed him. "Mother nature struck back with a little poetic justice," Richards recalled, betraying only a hint of remorse.
To make matters worse, scientists recently discovered a mysterious blight that is prematurely aging and thinning some of the once lush stands of the cactus at the Saguaro National Monument near Tucson.
Ken Stolte, a National Park Service biologist coordinating research on the problem, said comparisons of park photographs taken more than 60 years show a significant reduction in the numbers of mature saguaros as well as a browning of many middle-aged plants.
The phenomenon is still unexplained and could even be natural, though no evidence of disease has been found in the affected plants, Stolte said. More likely culprits, he said, were acid rain, car exhausts and residual pollutants from lime kilns that once operated in the area.
"Something is stressing the saguaros and making them more susceptible to natural processes like freezing," Stolte explained. "The cactus population as a whole have been really zapped."
Of more pressing concern to environmentalists and officials alike is the problem of theft, not just of saguaros but of a whole range of picturesque cacti, including stout shaped barrels and stickly bushes known as cholla.
Mounting water shortages in the Southwest have stimulated demand among landscapers and homeowners for cacti, which require little maintenance and can survive years of drought. Yards in most Arizona subdivisions are crammed with transplanted saguaros as well as other cacti. But, in many places, the same plants are getting harder and harder to find outside of town.