Yevgeny Safronov and the four tourists landed in Los Angeles on a 70-degree dream of a day last May. They were Czechs, Slovaks, and Russians, here on vacation. It was a holiday, so the banks and much of government had closed, but not all of it. For at least six months investigators in federal agencies that watch the nation’s wild lands, its fauna and flora, had also kept eyes on these five foreigners, who would soon drive into the desert, where undercover agents would be waiting. The flight from Moscow had lasted 12 hours. Safronov and the others left their seats, then applied for entry into the U.S.

The investigation began when an agent in Denver found a European website advertising a trip. Written in Slovak, the blog post read: “Already this summer, I began to have ‘cold turkey’––I have not been in the U.S. since last June.” The post was written by the trip’s organizer and the site’s host, Igor Drab, who had planned a camping tour of state and national parks across the American Southwest, starting and ending in Los Angeles. “If anyone among you is interested to join,” Drab wrote, “you must do so as soon as possible.” The investigator alerted Fish & Wildlife Service in El Paso, Texas, and from there the Bureau of Land Management, Customs and Border Protection, even the crisp-brimmed rangers of the National Park Service.

Some of the tourists had come before. In a video posted to YouTube four years ago a group walks a desert wash beside a scraggy cliff. They are middle-aged and gray-haired, mostly men, some with bloated bellies and ponytails. One man wears a floppy safari hat and a tan vest with the words “RUSSIA” on the back. In the dry riverbed the tourists’ eyes search the jagged slopes, and like excited children on an Easter egg hunt they motion and point. A low voice from behind the camera speaks. Safronov’s swollen hand reaches for something in the rocks.

At the airport, customs agents pulled aside two of the tourists for a routine interview. How long did they plan to stay in the country? Three weeks, the tourists answered.

What was the purpose of their trip?

They were hobbyists, they said, come to see American cacti.

Safronov, Drab, and the others rented a white Chevrolet Tahoe, then drove west.

***

There are 1,480 living species of cacti, all but one indigenous to the Americas. The journal Nature Plants recently studied the level of danger to almost every species on earth––the largest study of any plant taxon––and the alarming result was 31 percent are threatened, the fifth most of any taxonomic group, just behind amphibians and corals. Loss of habitat to humans and the clumsy plodding of livestock factored highly. No surprise. But what shocked the report’s author was that the largest extinction threat comes from horticulture, specifically the illegal collection and trade of cacti. “We’ve always known there was a black market for these plants,” Bárbara Goettsch, the report’s author, told me in a Skype call from England. “But we thought that was not the case anymore.”

Turns out, it’s still very much the case. Last October, Chinese and German customs agents busted a smuggling ring and seized 1,250 plants, some rare and endangered cacti. As might be expected, there are few scholarly reports investigating the cactus black market. One such report, called “Prickly Trade” (the cactus world is full of egregious puns), estimated that in one three-year period people illegally plucked about 100,000 cacti out of the Texas wild or smuggled them over the Mexican border. That was in 2003. Then Internet commerce arrived. A report from 2012 monitored just 24 online cacti sellers for 1,000 purchases. These were not just any 1,000 cacti. Each was listed as an “Appendix I” specie by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which are plants threatened with extinction. To trade any of these, a seller needs a permit. Of the 1,000 cacti researchers monitored, the report found at least 90 percent had traded hands illegally.

There are plenty of laws that protect cacti, but not much enforcement. There are three degrees of internationally recognized CITES listings that restrict trade. In America, it’s illegal to take plants from most federal land. State laws vary––Arizona’s, which requires a person to notify the government before moving most cacti, is one of the more stringent. Although, as with any black market, legal peril only increase an item’s value. Some cacti thieves will pull a plant from the wild because, like with tiger bones or rhino horns, someone will pay a lot of money for it. But cacti are also besieged by those who profess to love the spiny plants—the private hobbyists and horticulturalists who collect and show cacti like paintings or purebred dogs. These people are sometimes disparagingly called cactophiles, which one online commenter wrote, calls to mind “dirty old men in potting sheds.”

* * *

Safronov is in his early 60s. He has collected cacti half his life. Back in Russia, he keeps 2,000 plants in his own greenhouse, although he estimates he’s tended to more than 10,000 in his time. Almost every year he’d hunt cacti in places like Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and the American Southwest. In his last U.S. tour, in 2011, he camped with Drab and others in Death Valley, crossed the Hoover Dam, marveled at Las Vegas, or as he called it, the “megalopolis of entertainment,” all the while keeping detailed accounts of cacti sightings. In a blog he later detailed the temperatures of the desert days, the locations of cacti, even what he ate some nights (“BBQ pork ribs, vegetables, and whisky”). In one picture, Safronov crouches in the desert over a flowering scelerocactus nyensis, a CITES endangered specie. He is shirtless in a safari vest, and his golden cross necklace hangs forward and glints in the sun against his dark chest hair. He smiles, and his hands gently cradle the small cactus, as if it were his own infant child.

To collect cacti is to care for them. So part of the obsession becomes developing a skill to measure against others based on the size of your collection, the variety of your species, and an obsessive attention to detail. Collectors swap soil combinations of peat, sand, potting soil, and pumice, hoping to replicate a plant’s wild environment. But how do you get your greenhouse, or even your palm-shaded southern California backyard, to mimic the 60-degree diurnal swings of a hot desert day and a cold desert night? It takes a lot of tinkering, and unlike a fussy orchid, the hardiness and slow growth of cacti make it difficult to judge success. Above ground, a slow-to-react cactus may appear green and chipper. Below the soil’s surface, a single overwatering may have rotted its roots and destroyed years of labor, leaving a brown mush like soggy bread.

The other draw to cacti comes from the almost spiritual affinity people feel for the deserts where they grow. Take Steven Brack, a New Mexico man whose collection has become a global mecca for cactus hobbyists. In the 1970s, Brack read a book on cacti at his local Wisconsin library. At 22-years-old he ordered seeds from a specialty magazine. Three years later, Brack read a cactus travelogue in the same magazine, written by an Englishman. He’s since forgotten the theme of the article, or where in the Southwest the writer visited, but the account of the desert and its cacti so mesmerized Brack that it inspired him to move from Wisconsin to New Mexico.

In the desert Brack would park alongside a country road and walk until nightfall, make camp, then hike again in hopes of glimpsing wild and rare cacti in a landscape where few others had ever stood. “It’s nice to be out in the complete wilderness where it’s empty,” he told me, by phone from his home in Belen, New Mexico. “And there really is a lot of this empty wilderness land. You could live for a thousand years and you could never explore it all.”  

A lone saguaro cactus in the Southwest desert (Chris Rady / Corbis)

The romantic idea of a raw, young American West has no better symbol than the saguaro cactus. In Western films, its image appears in locations where it has no business growing; it’s used by brands, like Old El Paso salsa, despite the fact that no naturally growing saguaros live within 250 miles of El Paso. The saguaro is almost exclusively indigenous to southern Arizona and the Sonoran state of Mexico, where it grows plentifully. Saguaros can reach 30 feet tall, but they do so at an absurdly slow rate. In the first decade of life, a saguaro tops out at an inch. It takes 75 years to sprout its famous arms. And because homeowners want a saguaro in their front yards, but are unwilling to wait until they’re octogenarians, crooks steal them from the wild, then sell them to local nurseries, where unsuspecting suburbanites take them home. In one recent case, a man named Kenneth Cobb, who’d already been convicted of running a ponzi scheme, dug up eight saguaros from federal land in daylight, then sold them for $2,000 apiece, two of them he shipped to Austria.

The most desirable species of cacti, at least for serious collectors, are often the most deceptively ugly. Ariocarpus fissuratus, or the living rock cactus, is a greenish-gray blob less than 10 centimeters high. It looks like a cow ate, then shit a bunch of rocks on the ground. The living rock cactus certainly doesn’t usher to mind rolling wagons or John Wayne, and it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to collect—until it reproduces, that is.  

Cacti need to attract pollinators, so they grow flowers, and some of the uglier species of cacti grow especially beautiful flowers. Come the end of summer and early fall, the living rock cactus puts out a flower colored a soft angelic pink. Likewise for echinopsis pampana. It grows in the Puna de Atacama Desert of Peru and much of the year it’s nothing special. But when it flowers its petals glow yellow at the center and turn vermillion at the edges, giving it an endless, smoldering depth. It is so preposterously gorgeous that in the past 15 years collectors have helped cut the population in half. It’s now endangered.

A flowering ariocarpus fissuratus, or living rock cactus (Paul Starosta / Corbis)

The cactus community, said Brack, the New Mexico collector, frowns upon that type of activity. “They’re highly ostracized by the hobbyists.”

Brack raises his cacti from seeds, some of which he’s tended for 45 years. He is now 67, and still spends sun up to sun down in one of his 14 greenhouses, with his wife, tending to his hundreds of thousands of cacti. “People have passions about Ford Mustangs,” he said. “There are all sorts of passions.”

* * *

The tourists stopped in a small railroad town in southern Arizona called Benson, where they slept the night at a Kampgrounds of America that rents little log cabins with bunk beds. Two undercover Fish and Wildlife agents watched their SUV pull away, then trailed the foreigners onto a highway, then onto a dirt road that parts an ocean of desert.

When the tourists parked, agents saw Safronov and the others wandering and scanning the dirt. Investigators would later learn that Safronov had GPS locations of each plant he wished to visit, the same he’d used on his last U.S. trip. Safronov kept a meticulous notebook. He listed the species he’d found, the park where he found each plant, as well as the nearby road. One of the foreigners squatted to take photos. The others gathered.

When they’d left, the agent and her partner saw that the cactus’s seed pod had been stolen. This may not mean much for other plants, but in the desert, every chance to reproduce is vital. Over the 150-year life of a saguaro, it can spread 40 million seeds. Just one of those may survive to become a mature plant.

Cacti range from Canada to the Patagonia, growing in bleached and forsaken deserts like the Great Basin, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and the Atacama, one of the driest places in the world, with geography so alien that NASA tests its Martian rovers there. And yet even in the Atacama, the copiapoa genus of cacti thrives, often drinking only the condensation of the occasional morning fog. It is able to do this because, somewhere in its evolutionary history, the ancestors of cacti became obsessed with water.

The first cacti had bark and leaves, spiny thorns, and a thin stem. It probably looked a lot like a rose bush crossed with a tree. Unlike most trees, it stored more water in its stem, and could breath carbon dioxide at night, which saves water, because moisture evaporates each time a plant opens its pores to breath in the sun. This ancestor lived in dry climates, and gradually it grew a fatter, succulent stem. Then it dropped its leaves, another water-saving trait. About 35 million years ago, at the end of the Eocene Epoch, the world’s carbon-dioxide levels crashed, forcing plants to open their pores even longer during the day. In a world that now favored nocturnal photosynthesizers, the cacti flourished, and quickly speciated into an array of varieties and oddities.

Today, cacti are the world’s best water hoarders. Take, for example, echinocactus grusonii, the golden barrel cactus, a slow-growing, globular stump covered in golden-colored spines. Like most cacti, the golden barrel cactus can choke off its roots and lock up the water in its siloed stem. When it rains again the cactus shoots its low-lying roots back into the earth to sponge up even the lightest sprinkle. The golden barrel is perfectly suited to endure the hell of the desert, but many of these ancient adaptations also make it vulnerable to a world overrun by humans. Cacti tend to grow slowly, live a long time, reproduce infrequently, and concentrate in one area. The wild golden barrel cactus lived almost exclusively in a single valley in Central Mexico. In 1994 the country flooded its newly built $312 million Zimapán Dam and not only displaced 3,000 people, but killed off nearly every wild-living golden barrel cactus.

* * *

In Big Bend National Park, six days after the tourists arrived in the U.S., an undercover park ranger spotted the white Tahoe in campsite #16. The ranger pitched a tent beside the five tourists, 20 yards away, where he could safely observe them. The park straddles the Texas-Mexico border, and over the serrated brown mountains the sun was setting and the moon hung faintly in the sky like a watermark. One of the tourists had angled his camera atop a tripod to take a photo. Posing as a fellow camper, the undercover ranger chatted with the photographer, remarking on the pleasantness of the 80-degree weather, and the beauty of the desert. At night, the five foreigners slipped into their tents. At 2 a.m., the ranger bugged their Tahoe with a GPS tracking device.

In the morning the ranger followed the signal to an overlook where a river splits a plateau as cleanly as a knife cuts a block of cheese. The tourists stopped to stare, then drove about two miles up a dirt road. As they marched a couple hundred yards into the desert, the ranger kept his distance, spying through a telephoto lens, but in the shrubs and the brown undulating hills, he lost his view. After 45 minutes, the tourists left.

Tire tracks and footprints led the ranger to a prickly pear cactus. The prickly pear looks like a bush made of flat, green oval pads covered with long needles. Atop each pad grows a few more pads. If you cut one and plant it, it’ll sprout more pads. On the plant, one had been cut away. The wound was obviously fresh. Despite the nearly 100-degree day, it oozed.

At the campsite the foreigners drank beer. Again in his undercover identity, the ranger followed one tourist to the restroom. How’d the day go? the ranger asked. The man said they’d found everything they wanted, except “two species.”

An undercover National Park Service ranger took photos of the tourists while they camped in Big Bend National Park, Texas. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

Back in his own campsite, the ranger watched as the group prepared dinner. Atop a picnic table, one man in a gray shirt sorted items in a plastic bag. He talked to the others, holding the bag in plain view, then catalogued his take in a red notebook. At the end of the picnic table Safronov sat leaning forward. He wore suspenders and no shirt, a roll of his bare belly spilling over his khaki shorts. In his left hand he held an orange Uncle Ben’s Rice box. In his right he held a prickly pear pad. Safronov tried to push it into the box, but  two inch spines covered the pad, so with the aid of a knife, he pressed it down, pushing until it disappeared.

In the morning, the ranger woke to see the group packing to leave. Six days later and 900 miles away, two different undercover agents in Arches National Park, Utah, followed the foreigners as they hiked a trail then huddled near the ground. There, where there’d once been a plant, agents saw a bare pock mark. After two more weeks, the tourists’ time in the country had run out. They packed the Tahoe and drove back toward Los Angeles.

* * *

It’s tough to drum up support for cacti conservation. Rhinos and tigers and elephants have sad, relatable eyes to guilt people––and their money––into fighting smugglers, but few people shed a tear at the impending doom of mammillaria herrerae, which in the past 20 years has had 95 percent of its population poached from the wild.

Cacti do have an invaluable ally in Zeke Austin, an investigation supervisor with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Austin’s office in Arizona investigates farm animal and wild plant crimes. His team was once dubbed “the cactus cops.” In his 34 years in the department, the investigative team has been winnowed from eight agents, down to two. And while Austin is a determined man (“To be an investigator you have to be suspicious of everyone –– your wife, your mother, your father, and that’s what makes me a good investigator”) his job is one that would make Sisyphus sigh: He and his counterpart alone must patrol all 114,000 square miles of the state.

In any year, Austin investigates about a dozen wild plant thefts. Most of those are of thieves stealing the larger varieties of cacti, like ocotillo, saguaro, or barrel cactus. But lack of resources limits Austin’s investigations mainly to policing permits. In Arizona, you can still move a cactus, and even sell one, although not without a permit. One time, a guy bought 40 or 50 permits, saying he’d dug up the plants from his own land to sell. The ever-skeptical Austin Google Mapped the property and learned that the man only owned one acre. Austin drove out there and, sure enough, the man had illegally imported cacti from California. He’d purchased the permits to legitimize it all, effectively laundering the cacti.  

This cat-and-mouse game has grown so ridiculous that for at least seven years the federal government has electronically tagged thousands of cacti in Saguaro National Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Then, last summer, the government said it would scan some cacti in nurseries (like a lost pet) to ensure they hadn’t bought a wild-poached plant. No one knows yet if it will work. Although there’s little that Austin can do to stop the theft of the more isolated, rare and typically much smaller cacti. “It’s so easy to take one of these, wrap it up in your pocket, and go from here to India,” Austin said. “And no one would notice.”

In the meantime, botanists and other researchers have largely stopped publishing the locations of the most desirable cacti. In one extreme case, that of mammillaria luethyi, its discoverer guards its location like an Illuminati secret. This cactus has cramped green fingers that spread from the stem and end in bursts of white, like microscopic bouquets of daisies. Its flower blooms into an oversized satellite dish, white at its center with edges of bright violet. The exact coordinates of this plant are rumored to be known only by the researcher who discovered it, as well as a few close confidants. Even then, the others were told only from fear the researcher should die, leaving the plant’s wild home safe, but lost forever.

* * *

Safronov checked two bags at Los Angeles International Airport. It was 1 p.m. on a Sunday, and while he made his way toward the gate, Fish and Wildlife agents opened his luggage.

Inside the bag agents found seeds stuffed into socks and wrapped in ace bandages, whole cacti camouflaged beneath electronics and in bags with jalapeño peppers. In all, agents found nearly 70 plants or parts of plants. And inside an orange Uncle Ben’s Rice box, they found the prickly pear pad.

Agents caught up with Safronov at the jetway. Through a Russian translator a customs officer asked if he had anything to declare. Money? Fruit, seeds, plants?

Confiscated cacti are typically boxed and sent to researchers and botanical gardens around the country. In Washington, D.C., at an offsite, two-acre building, the United States Botanic Garden keeps its confiscated cacti in a temperature-controlled greenhouse. Bill McLaughlin is the curator there, and one recent day he walked the rows of metal tables and pointed at the potted and tagged cacti. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands. There were the white, golfball-like mammillaria herrerae, the one poachers have nearly stolen to extinction. There were astrophytum asterias, listed as vulnerable. And from a box that arrived a few months ago were several echinocactus grusonii, the cacti Mexico nearly drowned to extinction––their illicit price tags still affixed.

Confiscated echinocactus grusonii at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s off-site greenhouse in Washington, D.C. (J. Weston Phippen)

“For me,” McLaughlin said, “there’s an intrinsic value to every species that exists. Every time we lose one, we lose the complexity of the world we live in. For me, there’s a sadness to that.”

Back at the airport, Safronov admitted, reluctantly, that he might have cacti in his bag. A National Park Services ranger grilled him, and Safronov showed the ranger his field notebook. In it, he’d listed the cacti he stole and where he’d stolen them. He took sole responsibility for all of it. When asked why, Safronov didn’t offer much of an explanation. It was as if he couldn’t help himself. To collect wild plants like this requires a special permit. He knew this. But those permits were granted only to large institutions, he said, not to people like him, the amateurs.

The trial was quick. Safronov plead guilty. The multi-state surveillance investigation that pooled the investigative powers of four federal agencies and at least a dozen agents in five states would end in a fine. Safronov admitted to attempting to smuggle an object contrary to law, a misdemeanor, as well as to a civil import/export penalty. The judge ordered him to pay $525.

Safronov flew home to Russia. And this time, the cacti remained.