Selfies further endanger rare phallic plant in Cambodia, conservationists fear

Cambodia's ministry of environment is warning the public not to pick the pitchers of the plant. PHOTO: CAMBODIA'S MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT/FACEBOOK

PHNOM PENH (NYTIMES) - The three women shrieked and giggled as they plucked the tubular pitchers from rare carnivorous plants in the mountains of Cambodia. The phallic shape of the pitchers reminded them of something, they joked as a friend filmed the scene with a phone.

"Everyone! This looks very familiar to me, like I have seen it before," a woman in a blue dress says as she enthusiastically grabs the pitchers of the Nepenthes mirabilis plant. "There are a lot of them here. Oh my god!"

The women broke off some of the distinctive appendages, which the plants use to trap insects. Holding them suggestively for the camera, they compared the pitchers' sizes to the physique of different men from various parts of Cambodia.

"I want all of them," says the woman in blue, displaying four plucked pitchers for the camera.

The widely viewed video prompted Cambodia's ministry of environment to warn the public last week not to pick the pitchers of the plant, which is an endangered species and protected by law.

Conservationists are concerned that the growing popularity of smartphones and selfies could increase pressure on the rare plants.

"What they did was wrong," the ministry said in a post on its Facebook page above photos of the women picking and holding the pitchers. "Do not do it again in the future. Thank you to everyone who loves and cherishes our natural resources. But please do not pluck the Nepenthes plant, otherwise you will destroy it."

The women have not been publicly identified, and the government is not seeking to punish them, the ministry said.

There are more than 100 species of Nepenthes, which is one of the many genuses of carnivorous plants found around the world.

The Nepenthes has evolved to produce an elongated receptacle, known as a pitcher, with a lid that can close and trap insects inside. The pitcher secretes nectars that attract insects.

Once caught, the insects slowly dissolve inside the pitcher, which absorbs the nutrients. The ability to catch insects enables the Nepenthes to grow in poor soil.

In certain species of Nepenthes, the pitcher has a phallic appearance when its lid is closed.

The resemblance can be so striking that some varieties of Nepenthes have earned a nickname: the "penis fly trap."

Mr Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the ministry of environment, said Cambodia has five species of Nepenthes, and all of them are protected.

Some websites have identified the plants in the video as Nepenthes bokorensis or Nepenthes holdenii. But Mr Neth Pheaktra said the species the women picked is actually the Nepenthes mirabilis, found in Cambodia's Bokor Mountains.

"As this plant is a rare species, we need to protect it," he said on Wednesday (May 18). "The ministry of environment is educating all people to preserve this plant."

After the ministry issued its warning, he said, it received mainly positive responses from the public. "Now more people love nature and participate with the government for the conservation of biodiversity," he said.

The problem of people seeking out and picking the Nepenthes pitchers is relatively new, Mr Neth Pheaktra said.

"This has been happening very recently, and it was spreading online, which could lead to bad behaviour by other visitors," he said.

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