Costa Rican Orchids: A Goldmine for Illegal Smugglers

Orchid poachers are called “Materos”, from the word matas, or plants, and they operate in Costa Rica much like drug dealers, with similar profits. They live under the radar, changing their phone numbers frequently, and going into the most remote and dangerous areas of Costa Rica’s rain forests and jungles, in pursuit of rare and exotic orchids to sell on the black market. Orchid collectors’ obsessions for the best and most unusual plants has been dubbed “orchidelirium”, and it’s estimated to be a $6 billion dollar business worldwide.

Costa Rica has laws against the removal of orchids from the country. La Ley de Conservacion de la Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Conservation Law of Costa Rica) prohibits the removal of plants such as orchids from the forests, but does not effectively prevent people from doing it, both nationals and foreigners alike.

Orchids are pretty easy to smuggle. The bulbs are small, hardy plants which can be wrapped in damp, dirty laundry, lasting for days before being sold on the black market, usually in the USA or in Europe, where the demand for rare orchids is very strong. More than 1.1 billion orchids were bought and sold in the last decade worldwide, 99% of the sales are estimated to have been legal.

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