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Saguaro National Park Officials Considering Use of Microchips To Slow Theft of Namesake Cactus


Select saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park could soon be packing microchips in an effort to deter their theft. NPS photo.

A needle prick in the not-too-distant future just might safeguard Saguaro National Park's namesake cactus from thieves.

The prickly plants, which can easily live 150 years and rise to 20 feet tall, are increasingly popular with thieves because of what they can retail for in the home landscape business. When a 6-inch cutting can sell for $25, well, you can imagine how high the prices might escalate for larger specimens.

As a result, at Saguaro, which has been a preserve for the iconic cactus, officials have been brainstorming ways to protect them from theft. One solution under consideration is to inject some saguaros with microchips that could later be used to identify a particular saguaro as having been pilfered from the national park. The idea is that thieves might leave saguaros alone if they think they might be toting a microchip.

"They're the exact type of microchips that are used in domestic animals like dogs and cats," Chief Ranger Bob Love told the Tuscon Citizen.

Saguaro is not the only national park unit turning to microchips to safeguard its resources. Ranger Love told the newspaper that officials at Lake Mead National Recreation Area have been using them to deter cacti theft, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials rely on them to slow antler theft from the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming.


Geez, thieves will steal anything ...


My travels through the National Park System:

This chip-technology is called RFID, Radio Frequency Identification.

Because this new technology elicits privacy concerns and has a negative public relations image, the industry promoting it has shown a propensity for approaching potential users who have an attractive & positive profile, and who have some plausible application for RFID. The industry offers to assist in designing a way to solve some problem they have.

The shortcoming with this activity is that on a number of occasions, the arrangement is not especially practical or workable. It puts RFID in the news in some commendable & sympathetic context, but is less than effective in solving the problem.

A common misconception about RFID is that it can used to 'track' the chipped object, the way we might track a radio-collared animal as part of a wildlife study. That is not how it works. Instead, the chipped object must be scanned, at close range. At Wal-Mart and other large stores where valuable merchandise is chipped, scanner-coils are built into the store doorways (or invisibly into the floor). In other situations such as a veterinarian's office, subjects are examined with a hand-held wand-scanner.

If plant nurseries that deal in the types of plants being poached from Parks are set up to use RFID routinely in their business (it can be used for inventory ... by scanning a plant a hand-held PDA might report the last time it was watered, fertilized or its price), then chip-implanting wild protected plants might reasonably lead to additional information about poaching activities.

If nurseries do not use RFID this way, then it is a huge burden to expect them to suddenly begin doing so.

If plant-poachers are selling fairly spectacular specimens directly to housing-developers for incorporation into new construction landscapes, then approaching the local builders' association (say in Tucson) to start scanning plants, as good as accuses them of buying hot plants on the black market. Similar illicit services might be offered directly to established home-owners.

Any experienced plant-person can readily distinguish between a plant that came from the wild (and thus was likely poached) and one that was grown commercially. The problem isn't so much to identify wild plants, with say RFID - they are easily identified by eye - as it is to secure the cooperation of those who are in a position to intercept & halt the demand-chain ... and those parties are mainly nurseries, builders & home-owners.

If any or all of those parties are surreptitiously encouraging/rewarding poaching, then we can chip Park-plants until they glow in the dark, and it won't solve the problem.

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