The victim, as usual, was mutilated and mute. Pointing to the shotgun blasts that had blackened the 17-foot-tall giant saguaro cactus, Richard Countryman remarked, "Since it takes nearly 100 years to grow a handsome saguaro, the idea of someone mutilating it for fun seems unbelievable." To a novice, perhaps, but as director of the compliance division of the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture, Countryman for the last 29 years has been fighting vandals who shoot up cacti for target practice, hack them with knives and even slam into them with Jeeps. Countryman, 57, also tracks the desert looking for cactus thieves who dig up the plants without a permit and sell them to nurseries and landscapers. Altogether, he estimates, cactus-nappers make about $450,000 a year at their trade.

Cactus is protected under Arizona law. Anyone convicted of stealing a cactus can be fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail, with penalties escalating for repeat offenders. With only a seven-man crew to help him patrol 90,000 square miles, Countryman can hope to put away only a small proportion of the desert bandits. Occasionally he gets a bit of unexpected help. Last winter a paroled felon from New York was blasting away with a shotgun and two rifles at a 23-foot saguaro when the ton-and-a-half cactus toppled over and killed him. Says Countryman approvingly: "That time a native plant struck back."