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Illegal digging of endangered orchid suspected on World Heritage island in Japan

A Habenaria dentata plant that later disappeared is seen in this photo taken by a Ministry of the Environment employee on Sept. 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Tatsugo Municipal Government)

TATSUGO, Kagoshima -- An endangered orchid species has reportedly been stolen in illegal digging on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage island of Amami-Oshima in southwest Japan, it was announced Oct. 6.

    The Tatsugo Municipal Government said traces of apparent digging of the Habenaria dentata plant were found, and that it has improved surveillance. According to the town, a Ministry of the Environment employee confirmed on Sept. 25 that Habenaria dentata was growing at the site. On Oct. 2, a local plant enthusiast found what looked like traces of the plant having been dug up. The Environment Ministry, Kagoshima Prefectural Police's Amami Police Station and the Tatsugo Municipal Government investigated the site on Oct. 4.

    Habenaria dentata's white flowers look like herons spreading their wings when they bloom in the fall. The plant's numbers have rapidly decreased due to horticultural picking, land developments and other circumstances. It is classified as an "Endangered IB" species highly likely to go extinct in the near future under the Environment Ministry's red list.

    Traces of suspected illegal digging are seen in this photo provided by the Tatsugo Municipal Government.

    Regarding the latest finding, which has come just after the island was named a World Natural Heritage site in July, a municipal government representative said, "It's very regrettable that this has happened amid rising attention (on the island) in and out of the country. We as island residents want to work together to protect (the plant)."

    All five of Amami-Oshima Island's municipalities have ordinances prohibiting picking the plant. Violators can be subject to a jail term of up to a year or fined a maximum of 500,000 yen (about $4,500).

    (Japanese original by Kazuaki Kanda, Amami Local Bureau)

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