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21.12.06 Cactus vs. Moth Cactus vs. Moth

- A tale of nature's revenge, stretching back more than two centuries and halfway around the world, has come full-circle in a battle of cactus, moth and man.

At stake is the survival of a Mexican national symbol.

The dull-colored cactus moth that reached Mexican territory this summer threatens to devastate the country's nopals, the prickly pear plant that graces the country's flag and is deeply interwoven in its history, culture and diet.

The moth didn't migrate here from its native South America; mankind carried it - to Australia, South Africa, and finally the Caribbean. That makes it a cautionary tale about the dangers of transplanting species, even in the good cause of "bio-control" - unleashing one animal or plant to fight another rather than using pesticides.

"It's not the moth that's to blame, but rather people," says Jose Sarukhan, the head of Mexico's National Council on Biodiversity, talking about the first sighting of Cactoblastis cactorium on Isla Mujeres, an island off Cancun, this summer.

"Imagine what would happen if this plague reaches here, and devours all the nopals in a country that's (their) center of origin," he said.

Experts say millions of acres of semiarid Mexican land could become total desert without its approximately 100 native species of nopals, or Opuntia, about half the world's total. Birds and reptiles that use them for nesting, protection or food would also suffer.

The country faces "extreme ... incalculable damage" if the moth jumps the 5-mile strait between Isla Mujeres and the mainland, said Jorge Hernandez, the director of Mexico's plant safety agency, which is hacking and burning affected cacti on the tiny island.

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Wow, sounds like things could get very bad for "nopales" in Mexico.