Conservationists Find New Ways To Prevent Kenya’s ‘Devil’s Cactus’ From Spreading

Opuntia is the official name for the species of cacti that is now taking over parts of Africa. More commonly known as “prickly pear,” this cactus was originally introduced to Kenya, Africa in the 1940s by British colonists who brought the plant to the country as a means of creating “natural fences” around different properties to prevent wildlife from invading those spaces and eating any agriculture. Within the past few years, however, the plant has been spreading at a rapid rate, and is growing in areas where wildlife, such as elephants and baboons, find their food typically. This means that these animals are now eating the prickly pear plant, and the sharp spikes covering the entire surface of it. This can be extremely dangerous, as these spikes are known to lodge themselves in animals’ mouths, stomach linings, and other intestines when they’re digested. This can cause painful abscesses and internal injuries, and also indirectly further spreads the cactus’s seeds, thus contributing to its rapid growth.  

The problem has become so prominent in Kenya’s farming culture that farmers are calling the pear plant the “devils cactus” which has now invaded over 100 square miles in just one Kenyan county alone! This issue isn’t just detrimental to wildlife populations in the area, but the overgrowth of pest plants such as this cause the Earth’s natural nutrients to be sucked out of the surface, leading to the death of other plant species that farmers purposefully plant as well as other food sources that are actually beneficial to wildlife species. 

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According to the Center for Agriculture and Bio-science International (CABI), 70% of Kenya’s natural agriculture would be lost to invasive species such as the devil’s cactus if it weren’t for outsourced plant management. This plant in particular is extremely hard to control, as when it’s uprooted and removed, if any part of the plant is left behind, no matter how small, it can take root and continue to grow if left unattended. 

“It’s got these horrible spines which make control of it exceptionally difficult. If you are removing the plant and you might drop a flower or a fruit, they will start growing. The cactus is further spread by birds and animals, such as elephants and baboons, who eat the fruit and disperse the seeds. Where the cactus is dense, it can prevent people’s access to their homes and livestock’s access to food,” said Arne Witt, CABI’s Regional Coordinator in Kenya.

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Studies have shown that this overgrowth is causing a major economic decline for the country. So scientists, researchers for CABI, and farmers alike are trying any and all new technology to better manage this infestation. So far, CABI has emphasized the use of bio-control to control the spreading. Bio-control involves bringing certain species of insects to the area that feed on the cactus. The insects are a great option because they kill the plant in its entirety without further spreading its seeds. 

In the early 20th century, Australia experienced its own prickly pear epidemic, and they used bio-control/bugs to control and minimize the problem, and they did so successfully. In addition to using insects as a natural means of management, conservationists are also finding ways of repurposing the plant to use for their own advantage. 

“Part of the mechanical removal is we are installing a biodigester that will create bio-gas. The bio-gas will be used to cook food in a kitchen for the conservancy’s anti-poaching patrols. That will consume up to 600 kilos of Opuntia plant a day and cook for between 20 and 30 men every day,” said Tom Silvester, CEO of Loisaba Conservancy, a wildlife conservancy and ranch located in Northern Laikipia.

So in addition to fully destroying the plant, conservatories are using bio-digestores to convert it into something useful for themselves, which only further helps their conservation efforts by ridding the land of this plant that’s killing a majority of Kenya’s wildlife.