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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Rare British orchid gets police protection from overzealous collectors

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the lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)Police protection for a plant? It makes sense if it's one of the last wild examples of its species and collectors are willing to pay rhino horn–level prices for its flowers.

That's the situation for the lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). Just a few of the wildflowers remain in Britain following decades of habitat loss to real-estate development and overharvesting by orchid collectors. One of the plants—in fact, the last flowering example of the plant in the wild in Britain—exists at Silverdale Golf Club in Carnforth, England, where it is visited by hundreds of plant enthusiasts every year. As the 100-year-old orchid prepares to bud some time in the next two months, British police are stepping up efforts to protect it from collectors, who have twice already tried to steal it.

In 2004, a collector tried to uproot and steal the entire plant but got away with only a small part of it. Last June, another thief cut off a large segment of the orchid, leaving just six flowers behind.

The Lancashire police aren't going to let that happen again. Security measures being set up to protect the plant include hourly foot patrols and a chemical security tag that will help identify any cuttings if they make it to market. The police department is also considering setting up a 24-hour closed-circuit TV system to monitor the plant, at a cost of £5,000 ($7,450). The plant has been circled with crime-scene tape to call attention to the seriousness of the situation.

Because this plant is so rare in the U.K., natural pollination has never been observed. Propagation must be carried out by hand, which is an extremely delicate task. The plant does still exist in the wild in mainland Europe, but even there it is rare, and the species does not take well to transplant efforts, making attempts to import new plants into the U.K. next to impossible.

Duncan Thomas, wildlife officer for the Lancashire police force, told the Daily Telegraph that this particular lady's slipper orchid "is an incredibly important plant, having survived for over a hundred years" when the species was thought to be extinct in the U.K. "People travel from all ends of the country on what is almost a pilgrimage to view the plant in bloom and are often overcome with emotion at the sight."

All attempts to induce more of the orchids to grow in the wild in Britain have so far failed, although legitimately made cuttings, raised in greenhouses, have sold for upward of $7,500 each.

Photo: Cypripedium calceolus via Wikipedia.

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

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