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From Saved to Stolen: Thief Absconds with Extinct-in-the-Wild Water Lily

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Nymphaea thermarumThis is why we can’t have nice species: Last week one of the world’s rarest plants was stolen from public display in London at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. An unknown thief or thieves walked in, pulled or dug up the plant and disappeared with it.

The tiny thermal water lily (Nymphaea thermarum) is the smallest water lily in the world, with a flower barely the size of a human fingernail. Native to a single hot spring in Rwanda, the plant went extinct in the wild a few years ago after the spring was drained for local agricultural use. As I wrote back in 2010, the water lily was saved from extinction by botanist Eberhard Fischer, who discovered the species back in 1985 but never figured out how to propagate it in captivity. That changed in 2009 when Kew horticulturist Carlos Magdalena figured out that the lily thrived not in water, like all other water lilies, but in damp mud at very specific temperatures and atmospheric conditions.

Since then Kew has managed to grow about 50 of the plants, and has transferred a handful to other facilities. Nevertheless it remains critically endangered. Kew considers the stolen lily to be “priceless” and vital to the conservation of the species. Police are currently investigating the crime of the lifted lily.

Guy Barter, chief adviser to the Royal Horticultural Society (which runs Kew Gardens), told the Telegraph that theft from a public garden is unfortunately common as well as dangerous to the plants. In this case he blamed something more sinister than the general public: “plants stolen to order and sold for profit” for collectors who will “sink to any depth to have something they really want.”

Look, I get the collector’s mentality. I’m the kind of guy who has spent hundreds of hours in dingy used bookstores or comic book shops to track down that one last early Joe R. Lansdale paperback or obscure Matt Howarth comic that I must have for my collection. But stealing rare plants and animals from captivity and the wild or checking off the list of species that you have hunted and killed, that’s a drive I don’t understand. This is why smuggled, endangered tortoises sell for tens of thousands of dollars, why rare orchids are black-market treasures and why a permit to hunt an endangered black rhino can sell for $350,000. And for what? For a head to hang on your wall, a tortoise to wander the grounds of your estate or a plant you’ll have to struggle to keep alive under incredibly precise conditions?

It might not be easy to find whomever stole this water lily. Kew, unfortunately, didn’t have a security camera pointed at right spot. The tiny plant was no doubt easy to hide as the thief slipped out of the garden. Even with police investigating, it may be gone forever. Unfortunately, with precious few plants and seeds available to keep the population of this species growing, the footprint of this one plant’s loss may be felt for a long time to come.

Photo: Nymphaea thermarum, courtesy of Kew Gardens

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Denham 4:31 pm 01/22/2014

    The human mind is probable the most fantastically evolved entity on this planet. When it is used with well meaning intelligence it can achieve incredible things, but when it not used in stupid and deadly ways it can be just as destructive as the worst nuclear bomb. It will in all probability now die for lack of proper care and be lost to mankind. Representing the dumbest of human minds how thick can this person be?

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  2. 2. pragmatickid 4:34 pm 01/22/2014

    OKAY all you doom and bloomers, let’s read how the loss of this sport of water lily is going to DOOM the planet (incidentally, I have several species of the Lilly Ponds’ water lilies [of which they have hundreds] growing in my pond.

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  3. 3. bungay lad 3:38 pm 01/23/2014

    A recent article about the theft of Rhino Horns throughout Europe by Irish travelers indicated now that their rhino horn theft ring had been broken up, they would shift to some other nefarious money generating activity. Sounds like one of their capers.

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  4. 4. bearvarine 7:08 pm 01/23/2014

    The article says there are about 50 other plants extant. Perhaps we should just sequence its genome and call it a day.

    Perhaps in thirty years we can use the genome as a blueprint to stamp out thousands of mid-21st century Chia Pet kits that let kids create the plants at home for their decorative value…

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