Lancaster Environment Centre conservation project supports criminal case against cactus smuggling

Copiapoa cinerea subsp columna-alba in its natural habitat in Chile. © B. Goettsch
Copiapoa cinerea subsp columna-alba in its natural habitat in Chile.

A Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) wildlife conservation project is involved in its first criminal case in Italy. is supporting the prosecution of two individuals who allegedly poached and smuggled some of the world’s most threatened cacti from Chile’s Atacama Desert.

More than 1,000 of the rare and protected cacti – which were destined for sale to private ornamental collections around the world - were seized from a greenhouse in Senigallia, Italy.

Dr Jacob Phelps, who is the co-founder of, and leads the Conservation Governance Lab at LEC, said further similar cases were being developed across six other countries.

The Court of Ancona in Italy is currently hearing the case, and it is rare that illegal plant traders are prosecuted like this.

Yet cacti are declining at an alarming rate - a recent study found that 31% of all cacti species are threatened with extinction, and the illegal collection of plants from the wild is one of the primary drivers of loss.

Jacob said the Prosecutor of Ancona’s response to this case reflects an increasing recognition of the harms caused by environmental crime.

What makes the case even more remarkable is the involvement of an international team of scientists, lawyers and conservationists in developing additional legal responses, alongside the criminal prosecution.

Supported by, IUCN and a team of pro bono lawyers, the Associazione per la Biodiversità e la sua Conservazione (ABC) - a cactus conservation group founded by Andrea Cattabriga - is also taking legal action.

The Court of Ancona has confirmed ABC's right to act as a civil party in the criminal proceedings, and ABC is now bringing a civil claim for harm to the Association’s mission to “promote concrete actions for the protection of biodiversity, everywhere in the world”.

If awarded, the defendants would have to compensate ABC – funds that will be invested into meaningful remedies to support cacti conservation, including efforts to save the plants and species harmed by this illegal trade.

This civil claim is part of a series of cases supported by

Jacob said: “Our network is currently developing cases just like this one across 6 countries. A Green Wave of cases argue this key point – if you harm nature, you can be held accountable for helping to remedy it.”

Whatever the final outcome of the proceedings, the Court’s admission of ABC as a civil party in this case has a wider historical and legal significance: although allowed under Italian law, this recognition was not a foregone conclusion as case law on this topic has not been consistent.

This case confirms that groups like ABC have a right to take part in criminal proceedings related to offences that could harm their missions.

“This is confirmation that conservation groups can help give a powerful legal voice to nature’s rights”, explains Maribel Rodriguez, Co-Executive Director of

The team from the law firm DLA Piper, coordinated by Raffaella Quintana and involving Federico Lucariello, Ornella Belfiori, Francesca Cannata, Maria Chiara Panichi and Matteo Nicolì, has been providing pro bono legal assistance.

The case is also supported by the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Plants Specialist Group, which contributed to developing the claim against the defendants, describing how the alleged offences have harmed cactus conservation. The Specialist Group also helped to repatriate the rescued cacti – a story that already made global headlines, including in The New York Times, when more than 800 of the plants were returned from Italy to Chile for conservation.

Andrea Cattabriga added: “This action helps to bring this story full-circle. The identified offenders have been caught and are being prosecuted, and the plants have been returned to Chile, Although the harm to these threatened species cannot be undone, our legal action will hopefully help to ensure their survival.”

The case is still ongoing, and the next hearing is scheduled for June 21.

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