Study: About 1/3 of world cactus threatened with extinction

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MEXICO CITY (AP) -- About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.

The study evaluated 1,478 species and determined that 31 percent are endangered due to factors such as the conversion of wilderness areas to farming and ranching, urban development and the harvest of cactus seeds and plants for trade and private collection.

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Study: About 1/3 of world cactus threatened with extinction
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, a cactus grows inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, Dr. Salvador Arias sits during an interview with the Associated Press, inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, an endangered echinocactus grusonii cacti, also known as Biznaga, is seen growing inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, an endangered echinocactus grusonii cactus, also known as Biznaga, grows inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, a school group walks past varieties of cacti, as they tour the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, grafitti marks a cacus growing inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this Nov. 4, 2015 photo, endangered echinocactus grusonii cacti, also known as Biznaga, are seen growing inside the botanical gardens of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. About a third of the world's cactus species are threatened with extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns in a new report.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
This April 24, 2015 photo shows tall saguaro cactus growing in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, a park not far from downtown Tucson, Arizona. For visitors who are pressed for time, the park offers a quick, easy-to-access look at spectacular desert scenery with mountains all around in every season, just steps from the parking lot. For those with more time to visit, there's a tram tour and numerous hiking trails. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)
This April 24, 2015 photo shows tall saguaro cactus growing in Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, a park not far from downtown Tucson, Arizona. For visitors who are pressed for time, the park offers a quick, easy-to-access look at spectacular desert scenery with mountains all around in every season, just steps from the parking lot. For those with more time to visit, there's a tram tour and numerous hiking trails. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)
In this March 3, 2015 photo, cacti are silhouetted against a twilight sky in the Valle de los Cirios, near Guerrero Negro, Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Also known as the Valley of the Boojums for the unusual cacti tree that is endemic to the area, it is one of Mexicoâs largest protected areas. The land is forested with desert flora that looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss: Boojums and elephant trees, cardon cacti, and many other types of succulents, as well as a variety of birds and mammals. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
In this March 3, 2015 photo, the last rays of sunlight illuminate a cardon cactus in the Valle de los Cirios, near Guerrero Negro, Mexico's Baja California peninsula. The Valle de los Cirios, also known as Valley of the Boojums, is a federally protected flora and fauna conservation area, one of Mexicoâs largest protected areas. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
This Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015 photo shows the 1920s estate house, where Ganna Walska altered the more classical and formal plants with mass plantings of cacti and other succulents at Lotusland, in Montecito, Calif. On the left side are succulent members of the genus Euphorbia, and on the right, many species of âold man cactusâ mingle with other American genera. Lotusland is open from mid-February through mid-November. (AP Photo/Pamela Hassell)
Toyota driver Jun Mitsuhashi from Japan and co-pilot Alain Guehennec from France race past Cactus Island across the Uyuni salt flats during the eighth stage of the Dakar Rally 2015 between Uyuni, Bolivia, and Iquique, Chile, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. The race will finish on Jan. 17, passing through Bolivia and Chile before returning to Argentina where it started. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Cacti, Opuntia cacti, on Cedros Island, Baja California, Mexico
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"We show that cacti are among the most threatened taxonomic groups assessed to date ... demonstrating the high anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity in arid lands," said the report, which was published in the journal Nature Plants.

It identified hotspots of endangered cactuses across the Americas, from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and parts of neighboring Uruguay north to the Mexican states of Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca and Puebla.

Salvador Arias, cactus curator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's botanical garden, said a little over a third of the country's 700 or so native species are at severe risk for survival and called the situation "alarming."

He said the greatest threat comes from destruction of habitat for crops and cattle. Second is illegal collection, often by aficionados who take seeds or plants to sell in European countries.

"These plants belong to the so-called exotic plants, which have ornamental value for people around the world," said Arias, who was involved in putting together the report. "How did (the plants) make it there (Europe)? We can simply say through illegal extraction."

He added that authorities are trying to combat the problem, but more resources and education are needed.

Scientists say cactuses are important elements of desert ecosystems as sources of food and water for flora and fauna. They're also a source of nourishment and building materials for local human populations.

In places like arid northwestern Argentina, tourists enjoy strolling among giant cactuses and snapping pictures of their bright yellow flowers.

Manuel Bibiloni, owner of Huin Cactus, a company in Argentina's Tucuman province that focuses on sustainable trade of cactuses, said the key for protecting them is to ensure that appreciation for the spiny plants happens in the places where they grow.

"It really costs them to adapt to different climates and situations. ... In many cases they end up dying, especially if you do not know how to care for them," Bibiloni said.

Nora Beatriz Muruago, a biologist specializing in cactus at the National University of Tucuman, said she was not surprised by the findings of the report. Cactuses have suffered in parts of Argentina from burning of natural grasses for agriculture and livestock and from road construction, she said.

Muruago said the harvesting of cactus for shipment to Europe is as old as Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas and the practice was essentially unregulated until the 1970s.

"Cacti have always captivated people. ... The beauty of their flowers and the singularity of their forms," Muruago said.

"So the depletion should not surprise us," she added. "The collectors create a huge network of illegal trafficking and put many species at risk of disappearing."

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