Crimes Against Cacti

Photo Courtesy of Saguaro National Park
Photo Courtesy of Saguaro National Park

Crimes Against Cacti

By Nicole Prieto, Staff Writer


I hail from Arizona. If you have ever visited the state, it is likely you have been personally introduced to its most famous flora: the saguaro cactus. Whether as prized front yard fixtures, in scenic photos on souvenir magnets, or as the preeminent species in Saguaro National Park, saguaros are everywhere. And, apparently, they have been under attack.

Several cacti were found hacked down or vandalized on the evening of Jan. 23 in Saguaro National Park, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Nine saguaros aged 30 to 150 were among the plants damaged. [1] There is a $500 reward being offered to anyone who can help find the person responsible — possibly “a young man in his late teens or early 20s [who] was seen walking in a neighborhood near the King Canyon Trailhead swinging two swords.” [2]

It was an odd piece of news to see on my Facebook feed, and it was not hard to imagine my friends’ appalled expressions as they liked or shared stories about it. As someone who has grown up surrounded by these things, I can say that if I never saw another saguaro for the rest of my life, it would probably be too soon. Nonetheless, I was offended. Attacking something that is virtually helpless — whose only defenses are some sharp spines you would not want to run into on a dark night — just seems wrong.

Not a few days later, in an unrelated cactus caper, police arrested, cited, and released a Tucson man in connection to stolen barrel cacti around Dove Mountain. A hunting camera photographed someone stealing the cacti, along with his truck. [3] The pilfered plants in question have yet to be found. [4]

With criminal law on the mind, my first thought was: Why the cactus crime spree? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these kinds of offenses are not unheard of in Arizona.

In 2014, a Gilbert teenager was “arrested for allegedly cutting off the arm” of a 150-year-old saguaro. Damages were expected to be somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on whether the cactus survived its amputation. [5] In 2013, a man was sentenced to pay $32,000 in restitution damages, in addition to jail time and probation, for stealing saguaros “from federal land near Wickenburg and [selling] them for about $2,000 each,” according to prosecutors. [6]

According to the National Park Service, some of the main threats to saguaros have to do with people making questionable decisions. Aside from frost, drought, fire, and human encroachment, “[o]ther threats to the saguaro include vandalism, attempted transplant or theft of the cactus. The saguaro is one of many plants in Arizona protected by the Native Plant Protection Act, and within national park lands, the removal of any plant is illegal.” [7]

So, what kind of penalties could the Saguaro Slasher be up against, if caught? Section 3-908 of the Arizona Revised Statutes Annotated states that “it is unlawful for a person to destroy, dig up, mutilate, collect, cut, harvest or take any living highly safeguarded native plant.” [8] Section 3-932 says it is considered theft if a “person knowingly removes or destroys any protected native plants from private or state land.” [9]

If they are valued at $1,500 or more, damaging protected plants can be a class 4 felony. [10] To put this in context, class 4 felonies have an imprisonment range of 1 to 3.75 years for a first offense. [11] At the least, it is a class 1 misdemeanor for damaging anything valued under $500. [12]

Profits notwithstanding, I am not sure why someone would want to make a living stealing saguaros; they can be truly massive and have to be conspicuous to haul around. I am less sure of what to make of someone who decides to go to a national park just to hack at them for fun.

As an undergraduate, I took a field trip to Saguaro National Park to, literally, size the saguaros up. With our lab group lacking a yardstick, and knowing that I am 4-foot-11, I spent half an hour standing next to several cacti as my group estimated how tall each was. I do not recall many being shorter than me. I do recall feeling somewhat intimidated by this vast gathering of stoic, immobile plants, which can grow to 50 feet in height. [13]

The trip gave me pause to appreciate them. A tall enough saguaro is probably older than anyone alive today, with a plant’s lifespan potentially reaching 200 years. [14] These are cacti bound to have lived through a lot of nonsense. It is sad to know that a few met their untimely demise at the hands of someone with a “sword, or other similar large, heavy, and sharp object.” [15]

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that “[31] percent of cactus species are threatened with extinction.” [16] Despite occasional, inexplicably violent human activity, the saguaro cactus is not one of those species. [17] Nonetheless, in the interest of respecting property, plant life, and an innate sense of justice, I would hope that some of my fellow Arizonans would make a conscientious effort to not expedite the saguaro’s landing on the endangered list.



[1] Curt Prendergast, Cacti vandalized in Saguaro National Park, (Jan. 25, 2016),

[2] Curt Prendergast, $500 reward for info on cactus vandalism, (Jan. 29, 2016),

[3] Carmen Duarte, Marana police arrest man in connection to stolen cacti, (Jan. 27, 2016),

[4] Alison Dorf, Man accused of stealing cacti identified, arrested, Fox 12 Oregon (Jan. 27, 2016),

[5] Deborah Stocks, Gilbert teen arrested after saguaro cactus damaged in Scottsdale park, ABC 15 (May 21, 2014),

[6] Phil Benson, AZ man sentenced for stealing saguaros, CBS 5 (Jan. 20, 2013),

[7] National Park Service, Threats to the Saguaro,, (last visited Feb. 2, 2016).

[8] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 3-908.

[9] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 3-932.

[10] Id.

[11] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-702.

[12] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 3-932.

[13] DesertUSA, Saguaro Cactus,, (last visited Feb. 2, 2016).

[14] Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Plant Fact Sheet: Saguaro Cactus,, (last accessed Feb. 2, 2016).

[15] Prendergast, $500 reward, supra.

[16] Illegal trade contributes to placing cacti among world’s most threatened species – IUCN Red List, (Oct. 5, 2015),–IUCN-Red-List.

[17] National Park Service, supra.

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