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Hundreds pillaged from nature reserve in the largest-ever haul
A Dactylorhiza majalis orchid.
A record-setting heist, a team of organized thieves, a shady black-market buyer.
It could be the plot to a Hollywood blockbuster, but this drama is not playing out on the big screen. Rather, it's set in the tranquil mountains of east Bohemia.
Police are on the hunt after more than 600 protected orchids were stolen from a nature reserve in the marshes of the Orlické Mountains region. The theft, discovered June 26, is the first in the area and is believed to be the largest of its kind in Czech history, officials said.
The flowers, all of the same Dactylorhiza majalis species, had been dug up with some kind of tool, said Zdeněk Záliš, the nature reserve's deputy director. The blooms were hacked off and discarded at the scene before the bulbs were packed into a vehicle and taken away, he said.
The thieves plundered two separate meadows, covering nearly 13 hectares (32 acres) near the town of Nové Město nad Metují.
It's not known exactly why thieves would target this specific flower, said Záliš. Known in English as the broad-leaved marsh orchid or western marsh orchid, its delicate, purplish blooms and speckled leaves attract plenty of fans, but the flowers are not considered overly rare or endangered.
It's one of around 50 orchid varieties growing in the Czech Republic, mostly in remote nature reserves like the Orlické Mountains.
The plant is in demand by both botanists and florists and will likely fetch a decent price on the black market, said Eduard Chvosta of the Prague Botanical Garden.
The illegal trade of rare plants in the Czech Republic is no secret, he said.
"There are exchange houses and black market networks."
Dactylorhiza majalis is native to this region of Europe, but cultivated orchids of this type sell in shops elsewhere for around 5 euros ($6.35/150 Kč) each, he said.
"Everybody always wants what they don't have. ... There aren't that many orchids, and they're nice, so there is high demand and high prices."
The black market for these bulbs is varied and may even be a trans-border trade, Záliš said.
"These plants can be interesting for nonprofessional orchid collectors or florists in the Czech Republic and even in other countries," he said.
A year and a half ago, the Czech appetite for orchids garnered worldwide attention after two Moravian men were charged with attempting to steal protected orchids during a trip to New Zealand. The men had been the target of a three-month investigation by Interpol dubbed Operation Orchis.
Čestmír Číhalík, a cardiologist and then-dean of the medical school at Palacký University in Olomouc, and Jindřich Šmiták, a Brno-based environmental inspector, were arrested with large quantities of the protected orchids stashed in their luggage. Both were members of the Czech Orchid Society.
They each received stiff fines — media reports differed, but all put them well over 100,000 Kč ($4,466) each — but avoided jail time after the judge in the precedent-setting case ruled the men had been operating for personal and not commercial gain.