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With about1,500 ghost orchids left in Florida, groups sue to list it as endangered

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ghost orchids grow in just a few places in Florida and Cuba. There are only about 1,500 left in Florida, and they are under threat from habitat loss and poachers. Now they are also the subject of a federal lawsuit. Environmental groups are asking the federal government to immediately take steps to protect the ghost orchid as an endangered species. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are just a few places in Florida where a visitor can expect to see a ghost orchid. One of them is the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. A particularly spectacular ghost orchid blooms there every summer just off a walkway. Sanctuary director Keith Laakkonen says it always attracts lots of visitors.

KEITH LAAKKONEN: Kind of hear this gasp, or you hear this pause when they see this really delicate, beautiful flower that's sort of way up there, you know? It's just really magical.

ALLEN: Orchids are charismatic as plants go, and ghost orchids have a mystique all their own. They cling to certain species of trees, don't have leaves and are hardly visible for much of the year until the white flowers - just a few inches long - bloom. Because the plants are well camouflaged, when that happens, the flowers seem to float in midair, giving the ghost orchid its name. It's been featured in books and even a movie. Environmental groups have asked the federal government to give the orchid protections under the Endangered Species Act, but it's a slow process. Elise Bennett with the Center for Biological Diversity says the groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to speed up the process.

ELISE BENNETT: And we based that petition on overwhelming scientific evidence that shows precipitous declines for the ghost orchid, as well as ongoing and worsening threats in the future.

ALLEN: Among those threats are loss of habitat, destructive hurricanes and sea-level rise. But the No. 1 issue scientists and environmental groups are worried about is poaching. Ghost orchids rarely survive when taken from the wild. Poaching has already led to the extinction of at least two species of Florida orchids. Last year, law enforcement officers arrested a poacher who had taken 36 rare plants, including a ghost orchid. George Gann with the Institute for Regional Conservation says social media and the availability of information on the internet has made poaching a bigger threat than ever.

GEORGE GANN: Because of the data that are available online - that it's become much more popular and known about. And so poachers have much better information.

ALLEN: Gann says when he began researching and documenting ghost orchids and other species as a high school student in the 1970s, few people ventured into Florida's cypress swamps. In recent decades, he says, that's changed. More and more visitors are willing to wade through the swamps for a chance to see ghost orchids and other rare species. And that, he says, is a problem.

GANN: People are well-intentioned, but the amount of human traffic, of people walking and touching and trying to see the ghost orchid, is probably not sustainable.

ALLEN: Listing the ghost orchid as an endangered species would allow the federal government to designate the areas where it's found as critical habitat. That would open the way to additional protections, including possibly limiting access so the orchid isn't, as Gann says, loved to death.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.