Journal of the San Juan Islands


From miracle to menace; the alarming tale of cactoblatis

Journal of the San Juans Editor
October 8, 2013 · 11:45 AM

A stand of prickly pear cactus seen during the height of the Australian prickly pear infestation in the 1920s. / Contributed photo

So, what do Kickstarter, the prickly pear cactus, and a voracious little moth called cactoblastis all have in common?

In a name, that would be Terry Domico.

At the moment, the noted conservationist and San Juan Island author is banking on a bit of exposure on the web and a cross-your-fingers-like campaign on Kickstarter, the online funding platform for creative projects, to be able to gather the rest of the information, documentation and interviews needed to put the finishing touch on his latest project, a book about the mostly untold story, at least at this point, of what he likes to call “The Great Cactus War.”

And quite a tale it is.

(Domico will preview the saga as part of a presentation at the library, Wednesday, Oct. 9, beginning at 7 p.m.)

But where to begin? Let’s start with the “now”.

Out in the wilds of eastern Louisiana, scientists have the march of the cactoblastis at bay, and have kept it from spreading into “real cactus country” of Texas, Arizona and the greater Southwest largely through the use of bacteria and a certain species of wasp — a predator of the so-called cactus moth. But that tightly regulated regimen could all be blown apart in the face of another large-scale natural disaster, another Katrina-like event.

cactus mothIf cactoblastis hurdles over that barrier, Domico says, it could wipe out the Southwest prickly pear, and, equally alarming, “it could cause a complete collapse of the entire desert ecosystem.” That’s mostly because, he adds, “Prickly pear is a ‘keystone’ species, like Douglas fir in the Northwest, it creates habitat for other plants and animals, or like the Garry oak in the San Juans.”

In recent years, cactoblastis made its way to Florida and then beyond by island-hopping across the Caribbean.

But way back more than 100 years ago, another possible jump-off point in Domico’s story, the moth arrived in Australia, in Botany Bay, onboard a cargo ship carrying some of the very first convicts banished to the British colony, along with a number of prickly pears.

Why did the British import the prickly pear cactus to Australia? Well, that another part of the story, which goes back even further, and which Domico would be delighted to share.

But once in Australia, the prickly pear not only flourished, it spread, and it grew, and it became so formidable that it engulfed farms, towns and villages, displacing families and communities, and conquered nearly everything in its path, as much as 29,000,000 acres were lost to the pear.

Many of the people Domico hasT. Domico interviewed in Australia remember it well, and with sorrow.

“Entire villages vanished under this great octopus of cactus,” he said.

Then a savior arrived, in the form of a moth. Discovered in a remote valley in Argentina, the cactoblastis was let loose on Australia’s prickly pear infestation and in a short time had brought the scourge to its knees, as its ravenous larvae consumed mile upon mile of the defenseless plant.

By the late 1920s, cactoblastis was hailed a hero in Australia.

But as is often the case when Man tinkers with Mother Nature, a one-time remedy evolves and morphs into a clear and present danger. And in the end, that’s a large part of the story that Domico hopes to tell.


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