17th September 2014 – Last weekend I experienced first-hand the impacts that invasive species can have. While carrying out research on an infestation of Opuntia Stricta in Laikipia, I felt something lodge itself in my eye. The following day I visited a specialist, as efforts to wash the thorn out of my eye had been unsuccessful.
They found that one of the very fine thorns, which are found on the fruit of the cactus, had become trapped in my eyelid and was scraping along the cornea. According to the specialist, another two days with the thorn in my eye would have resulted in me developing a corneal ulcer; which could have cost me my sight in that eye.
The thorns of Opuntia Stricta fruit are incredibly fine. So fine that the specialist was only able to detect it using microscopy equipment and dye. As well as being an unpleasant experience, this incident highlights the serious implications for those who live in areas which are infested with Opuntia Stricta, where many people would be unable to afford to seek medical help should they experience the same thing.
Opuntia Stricta can also have a significant negative impact on livestock. If they get thorns in their eyes, there is no way for the owner to remove them. This could potentially result in loss of sight. Equally, it is not uncommon for goats to feed on the Opuntia fruit where the same thorns damage the goat’s stomach. This has been linked to the death of many animals in areas where this weed is prevalent as well as overgrazing in uninfected areas which is putting strain on pastoral land in these areas (Dodd, 1940).
While invasive species are often perceived as a biodiversity threat, they have a very real impact on the livelihoods and health of those who live in the areas in which they infest.