The Cactus Hunters

Desire and Extinction in the Illicit Succulent Trade

2023
Author:

Jared D. Margulies

LISTEN: JARED MARGULIES IN CONVERSATION WITH SAMANTHA WALTON

An exploration of the explosive illegal trade in succulents and the passion that drives it

Delving into the strange world of succulent collecting, Jared D. Margulies explores the mystery of why ardent lovers of these plants engage in their illicit trade—even at the risk of driving some species to extinction. A heady blend of international intrigue, social theory, botanical lore, and ecological study, The Cactus Hunters offers complex insight into species extinction, conservation, and more-than-human care.

"The Cactus Hunters takes us into the fascinating world of succulent collecting. Jared D. Margulies skillfully traces the consequential ways in which people and cacti move one another, remaking possibilities for life, desire, wealth, extinction, and more in the process. This book offers a powerful example of the value of close attention to the entangled lives of plants and their people."
—Thom van Dooren, author of A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions

Cacti and succulents are phenomenally popular worldwide among plant enthusiasts, despite being among the world’s most threatened species. The fervor driving the illegal trade in succulents might also be driving some species to extinction. Delving into the strange world of succulent collecting, The Cactus Hunters takes us to the heart of this conundrum: the mystery of how and why ardent lovers of these plants engage in their illicit trade. This is a world of alluring desires, where collectors and conservationists alike are animated by passions that at times exceed the limits of law.

What inspires the desire for a plant? What kind of satisfaction does it promise? The answer, Jared D. Margulies suspects, might be traced through the roots and workings of the illegal succulent trade—an exploration that traverses the fields of botany and criminology, political ecology and human geography, and psychoanalysis. His globe-spanning inquiry leads Margulies from a spectacular series of succulent heists on a small island off the coast of Mexico to California law enforcement agents infiltrating a smuggling ring in South Korea, from scientists racing to discover new and rare species before poachers find them to a notorious Czech “cacto-explorer” who helped turn a landlocked European country into the epicenter of the illegal succulent trade.

A heady blend of international intrigue, social theory, botanical lore, and ecological study, The Cactus Hunters offers complex insight into species extinction, conservation, and more-than-human care.

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Awards

American Association of Geographers: Globe Book Award for Public Understanding of Geography — Honorable Mention

Jared D. Margulies is assistant professor of political ecology in the Department of Geography at the University of Alabama. His work has been published in leading academic journals across the fields of social, cultural, and political geography; political ecology; the conservation social sciences; and environmental humanities.

The Cactus Hunters takes us into the fascinating world of succulent collecting. Jared D. Margulies skillfully traces the consequential ways in which people and cacti move one another, remaking possibilities for life, desire, wealth, extinction, and more in the process. This book offers a powerful example of the value of close attention to the entangled lives of plants and their people.

Thom van Dooren, author of A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions

Follow Jared D. Margulies and his infectious curiosity on a riveting global tour starring charismatic cacti and the people who desire them. In moving plants and the unconscious to center stage, The Cactus Hunters is a deeply felt and nuanced reckoning with desire as a structurally produced and world-making force—a unique and major contribution to political ecology.

Rosemary Collard, author of Animal Traffic: Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade

An esoteric deep dive into the illegal cactus trade.

Publishers Weekly

Through his extensive and well-articulated analytic framing, Margulies has produced a unique and important piece of literature that masterfully brings Lacanian psychoanalysis and political ecology into dialogue to provide a much-needed framework for understanding an overlooked aspect of anthropocentric environmental degradation.

Journal of Political Ecology

The book is an interesting case study in the political ecology of desire and its impacts on global biodiversity conservation.

Choice Connect

Landscape architects should find delight in this book—particularly in how it weaves together tales of plant hunting with nuanced psychoanalysis.

Landscape Architecture Magazine

Even those highly versed in plant conservation can learn something from this book: it draws on gender theory, psychoanalysis, colonial histories, racial stereotyping, capitalist consumerism and political ecology to provide new and important insights into the trade of succulents.

Oryx

The Cactus Hunters expands the scope of “emerging geographies (and anthropologies) of the Anthropocene” by recognising the capacity for dialogue in succulents and cacti.

The Sociological Review

This book is well-organised, with a fluent concatenation of facts; the author shows a remarkable narrative capacity and great erudition. With this book, we understand how, as some plants symbolically take root in our desires, at the same time, they slowly unroot forever from their native soil.

Plant Perspectives

Contents

Preface

Abbreviations

Introduction: Cactus, Be My Desire

1. On Collecting and Caring for Cacti

2. Illicit Encounters with Succulent Collectors

3. Between the Iron Curtain and the Glass House

4. Confronting Extinction Anxiety in Cactus Country

5. A New Illicit Trade

6. Learning to Know a Plant

7. Disentangling Succulent Desires

8. For a Flourishing Geography of Succulent Life

Acknowledgments

Additional Resources

Notes

Index