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Geoff Bailey, John Miller and Martin Smith
Geoff Bailey & John Miller, Living Rocks of Mexico, site editors. Martin Smith, El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico
Ariocarpus bravoanus is known only from a small area within the state of San Luis Potosí. It is the most recently described species of the genus having been discovered by Hector Hernández of UNAM whilst collecting cacti for a herbarium project, and published by Hernández & Anderson in Bradleya 10 in 1992 1. The plant was discovered accidentally in soil removed whilst extracting a specimen of a larger species. Study of the plant showed it be a new species of Ariocarpus with a close affinity to the previously described A. fissuratus var. hintonii 2 that occurs approximately 75km further north. A. bravoanus is particularly interesting as it represents a link between the former subgenera Ariocarpus and Roseocactus. The new species was named in honour of Dra Helia Bravo, who contributed much to the study of the Mexican Cactaceae. Further studies of A. fissuratus var. hintonii revealed that whilst superficially resembling A. fissuratus, A. fissuratus var. hintonii is closely related to A. bravoanus sharing many similar morphological characters, tubercle structure, papillate epidermis, seed testa etc. A. fissuratus var. hintonii was therefore subsequently transferred to subspecific status beneath A. bravoanus by Anderson & Fitz Maurice 3.
The Present Situation
Ariocarpus has long been a favourite genus amongst the cactus growing fraternity, and it was inevitable that the new discovery would attract the interest of collectors. It is not surprising, therefore, that A. bravoanus rapidly became one of the most sought-after of Mexican plants, and, with the current Mexican laws concerning cactus conservation preventing any legal introduction of the species to the international market, attracted the attention of thieves eager to take the rich pickings to be made by raiding the very localised habitat of this new species. Despite the attempts made to protect the plants by not publishing details of the location of the population, the site eventually became known, and the plundering began. The Mexican authorities made attempts to protect the plant by the erection of a fence around the site, this has served no purpose other than to advertise the location. Local people were informed of the presence of the plant and asked to serve as wardens, a function which we believe they were actually performing – for a time. When the type locality was visited in October 2000 we were interrupted whilst photographing the plants by three locals who informed us that no one was allowed in the area because of the rare biznagas, they were friendly and once they realized we were not collecting plants allowed us to continue to photograph plants under their watchful eyes. The role of these ‘gamekeepers’, however, was soon to change to ‘poachers’ when they realized that they could make money by selling the plant to visitors. The type locality was systematically stripped by locals collecting the plants for sale and by early 2002 very few plants remained. The only real hope for the species was that other populations, thought to be unknown to collectors existed, and indeed populations were found in the vicinity but the discoveries remained unpublished in the hope that the populations would survive unmolested.
One of these new sites was visited in March of 2001. Although the whole area was not fully explored due to lack of time, many plants of all ages and sizes were observed (Fig 1), and the population estimated at around 200 - 300 individuals. This visit was made in the dry season, when the plants were not flowering, shrivelled, and less visible, therefore this estimate is probably significantly understated.
The two new sites known to us were studied in October 2003. Despite a very intensive and extensive search over two days not a single plant was found. This time of the year is towards the end of the rainy season when the plants flower and when they are at their most plump, in other words, the time of year when the plants are easiest to spot, however a large number of holes were found, and the surface of the ground looked generally disturbed.
We returned to the nearest village and sat outside a garage that sold cold beer, and tried to get into conversation with the locals. It didn’t take long before quite a crowd gathered, most of whom knew the plant, calling it “estrella”, meaning star. While stressing the fact that our only concern was the preservation of the plant, we asked if any foreigners had been seen removing plants. Indeed, there had been groups of “gringos” visiting the area, and yes, they had taken plants away. After expressing our concern for the local environment, and explaining that Martin worked on propagating this plant in the nursery at the El Charco Ingenio Botanical Gardens in San Miguel de Allende, we were shocked when one man suddenly asked us how many we wanted, quoting a price - 20 pesos (less than £1.50) for half a sack full - available immediately! Clearly, collected plants were being stored in the village for sale. At this point, an old man, mumbled something about other wildlife, and when asked, he said that snakes, eagles and wild cats were also being collected and sold in the area. He also made it clear that local elected officials were involved in the racket and that foreign visitors were bulk buying plants from the villagers for shipment abroad, rather that doing the digging themselves. It is known that collected plants of Ariocarpus bravoanus and other Mexican species have appeared for sale in significant quantities in Europe and the Far East in the last couple of years or so. Despite the Mexican conservation laws it’s still all too easy for plant thieves to collect ready dug consignments of plants before a quick getaway to the anonymity of Mexico City and a flight home.
On the basis of what was seen, it would appear that the systematic stripping of the habitats had probably taken place in the autumn flowering season of the current and previous years, when the plants are most visible. It was felt that this would best account for the total lack of plants, as plants not spotted the first year, would be likely to have been picked up the following season. It was the same sad story at another site, similarly stripped, probably in the Autumn of 2002, where again, no plants could be found. At the original fenced site some rather pathetic remnants of the original population were found - five plants in total. These were either seedlings (Fig. 2) or very immature plants, too small to be of a saleable size (Fig. 3) a far cry from the population observed in October 2000 (Fig. 4 & Fig. 5), which itself must have been a shadow of what was there when the plant was first discovered.
The following day, driving north, we saw many roadside stalls, with many species of cacti, including Ariocarpus retusus and Astrophytum myriostima for sale (Fig. 6), alongside tethered eagles and their chicks, racks of snake skins and cages holding wildcats. The stallholders waved at the passing traffic to attract custom. One woman with a downy eagle chick, grasped by its feet moved it roughly up and down to make its wings flap. Similar stalls have been observed here on earlier visits, but the scale of local trade in wildlife appears to increase steadily year by year. Later, in conversation with ”Fitz” and Betty Fitz Maurice, we learned that this is a longstanding problem in the state of San Luis Potosí, with the authorities doing little more than making an occasional example of someone, the visible trade then lessens for a while, only to come back later. In this poor area, it is understandable that ordinary people put feeding their families before concern for wildlife, but it is a tragedy that in the process, they are destroying their environment. Clearly this is an economic and political problem as much as it is a conservation issue.
Later in the trip convincing evidence of further collecting was found at two other important locations. One of these was a well known site of Pelecyphora aselliformis in San Luis Potosí, the other being a location of Ariocarpus fissuratus – the so-called ‘lloydii’ variety, in Coahuila. These were both well known sites that we have previously documented and photographed in recent years (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8). In October 2003 the plant population at each site had been noticeably reduced, the decline being due to collecting, not the natural fluctuation in plant populations, as evidenced by the signs of plant extraction observed.
Avoiding a Repeat
No doubt, over the next few years, if the collecting is stopped, the populations of A. bravoanus will regenerate from the missed seedlings and the seed bank remaining in the soil. This however, will not solve the problem simply because the collecting cycle will repeat itself when the plants are again sufficiently mature for this to be worthwhile. The vexed question is how to put a stop to the trade in collected plants and animals. Undoubtedly this requires action by both the Mexican authorities and the international community to prosecute those who trade in wild collected species. It might also be helpful if the locals could be properly paid to be custodians of these plants, to give them an alternative income to being paid a pittance to dig the plants. Additionally, the controlled distribution of seeds and artificially propagated plants would greatly reduce the pressures imposed on the populations of rare endemic species, and take away some of the profits made by those who, with no thought for the delicate ecosystem of which these plants are a part, decimate the habitats.
1. Héctor M. Hernández & Edward F. Anderson, Bradleya, 10, 1–4, 1992.
W. Stuppy & N.P. Taylor,
Bradleya, 7, 84-88, 1989.
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