Along the northwestern coast Greece, near the country’s border with Albania, where a rare herb grows on the mountainside, tea bandits are the loose. Greek authorities have been reporting that roving troupes of plant rustlers, assumed to be escaping impoverished living conditions in their native home of Albania, are crossing the border to illegally harvest Greece’s supply of ironwort, a medicinal tea that grows abundantly in the Mediterranean, as well as primrose and hawthorn. The herbs are then exported to pharmaceutical or cosmetics companies.
The endangered species of tealeaf is strictly regulated in Greece, where it’s only legal to pick a small amount for personal use. The looters don’t follow the same careful harvesting practices: Apparently, they are tearing up herbs and plants by the fistful, stripping the mountainside, and interrupting the plants' natural reproductive cycle.
Christos Toskos, an environmentalist working in the Kastoria region of Greece, where the highest number of thefts have been taking place, told the Associated Press that the leaf thieves ransack the mountainside for ironwort almost everyday.
Vassilis Filiadis grows his own herbs in Kastoria, and says that the “mountain tea grew there like the sea. The plants formed waves.” Now much of those plants have been uprooted.
The Associated Press’s report says that over the past few months, Greek police have arrested at least 10 tea smugglers. In one case, three people were caught with 300 pounds of ironwort, loaded on two horses and donkey.
The people who risk these ventures are paid just 6 Euros per kilogram for their trouble, and are often willing to endure a couple months in jail if it means earning money to support their families.
But 14 other types of ironwort are already facing extinction, causing some environmental advocates to panic. One of them, Eleni Maloupa, director of Greece's Institute of Breeding and Plant Genetic Resources, suggests using drones or cameras to monitor the mountainside for theft.
Police hope that the increase in arrests will deter future thieves, but while the Albanian people continue to struggle to support themselves, and the tea is there for the picking (and selling), it seems unlikely the cycle will stop—unless it's forced to should the tea leaves finally run out.
This story originally appeared on Foodandwine.com.