Because of their size and distinctive, telephone-pole shape, saguaro cactuses have become one of the hottest lawn decorations in the American Southwest.

For inhabitants of the palatial desert homes of Las Vegas and Palm Springs, a large Saguaro has become a status symbol, like a stretch limousine.

But many of these plants also are “hot” in a different way.

All saguaros are protected by law, so modern-day bandits have taken to digging them up, often from government-owned land, and selling them illegally.

Arizonans didn’t like losing their cactus, so in 1927 they made it illegal to dig them up from public lands.

They even set up a small force of ”cactus cops” to patrol the desert where the plants can grow up to 50ft, weigh 200 tons and live for 200 years. For a while, the cactus patrols kept the thieves at bay, but now cactus rustling has become big business. It’s like stealing a car. It’s the same thing with a saguaro.

Outside Arizona (the only state where saguaros grow naturally), the average retail value for a saguaro is $ 25 a foot, with an additional $ 50 to $ 100 for each arm.

Last year, about 200 people were fined or issued warnings for digging up protected plants in Arizona. Three-quarters of those plants were saguaros. Such thefts are on the rise this year.

Armed with permits, landscapers can take saguaros legally from “disturbed areas,” such as road-construction sites. Illegal traffickers, however, face fines of as much as $ 10,000 for a second offense.

Instead of trafficking saguaros illegally, it is a better idea to plant a seedling. If you plant a six-inch saguaro, your grandkids might see some growth.