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Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 13:23 UK

California tackles 'cactus crime'

By Rajesh Merchandani
BBC News, Palm Desert, California

Golden barrel cacti
Golden barrel cacti can fetch up to several thousand dollars

It's 109F (43C) in Palm Desert, a parched city in Southern California.

Outside, little stirs that doesn't need to.

But Spencer Wright, the city's landscape manager, walks me through neat desert gardens at the city's visitor centre, pointing out short, round, spiny plants that are the target of local thieves.

The ones he shows me have been recovered. But $20,000 (11,000) of golden barrel cacti have been stolen in six months.

He thinks they are the latest, if somewhat unusual, victims of the economic slide in the US.

"It was right when the economy was peaked and had started to slow down," says Mr Wright.

"So they took the opportunity to take them and sell them... they have a high resale value. If I pay $100 for one at a wholesale nursery, then I'm going to get $50 to $60 for it on the black market," he adds.

Desert plants

Those prices relate only to the small golden barrels that are 6in (15cm) across.

They can grow, slowly, up to 2ft (60cm) in diameter and can fetch up to $4,000 (2,200).

Lt Frank Taylor
Police Lieutenant Frank Taylor tells thieves: We're going to get you

The cacti had served a noble purpose. For many years lush lawns dominated the city's roadside verges and median strips.

But thick dark green grass isn't natural in a region where it only rains, on average, 17 days each year.

The sprinklers that maintained the lawns exhausted precious water supplies further - a serious concern given California's current drought.

To save water, city officials replaced the green turf with native desert plants.

Now species like cactus, agave, red bird of paradise and lantana line the roads.

Of these, the slow-growing varieties, such as golden barrels and agaves, have been targeted.

But police are now taking a zero-tolerance approach.

Years in prison

Hidden security cameras monitor places where large numbers of the plants are located, while officials will start putting microchips in some cacti, so that stolen ones can be identified.

"If you come into the city of Palm Desert and you steal property from here, then we're going to find you," says Palm Desert Police Lieutenant Frank Taylor.

"We're going to get you on video and we're going to put you in jail for it," he adds.

And be warned - the penalty can be severe.

Get caught with a large stolen cactus and you could face up to four years in prison.


SEE ALSO
Poachers threaten Mexico's cacti
14 Apr 08 |  Americas
State profile: California
25 Jul 08 |  Americas

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