Friday, September 02, 2011

Perils of beauty - Attack of the "Orchid snatchers"

Collectors of rare orchids are stripping them from the rainforest, driving the most beautiful and unique species to rapid extinction. Is beauty a curse? Perhaps so, if you're an orchid!

This is nothing new, of course. Even the Victorian Britons suffered the same collecting-mania, which they called "orchidelirium". The period saw a fashion for hothouses among the wealthy, and professional plant-collectors were despatched to far-flung parts of the world to procure new and interesting plants for horticulture. This is the subject of a book, The Plant Hunters, by Tyler Whittle.

Eminent botanists were not innocent parties either:
"Sir Joseph Hooker, traveling in India, remarks that Vanda caerulea is 'The rarest and most beautiful of Indian orchids'. Yet in a footnote he mentions that he collected 'seven men's loads' of this plant (few of which reached England alive); he goes on to suggest that collectors with better facilities for getting the plants home 'might easily clear from £2,000 to £3,000 in one season, by the sale of Khasia orchids' - and this is just what happened. ... Few orchids now remain in the Himalayan foothills."
This is quoted from Anthony Huxley's very readable book Green Inheritance: The WWF Book of Plants, originally published in 1984 but still a good source of information about the ways people make use of plants and relate to our green environment.

The BBC article cites the case of a new orchid species, Bulbophyllum kubahense, that was introduced into the black market even before its discoverer, the orchidologist Jaap Vermeulen, had even published the formal description in a botanical journal.

All orchids are in Appendix II of the CITES treaty (see list - scroll down), which means that permits are required for them to be exported. A number of rare species, including all the slipper-orchids (Paphiopedilium) are Appendix I species, where trade in wild-caught individuals is illegal except with special permits.

Monitoring the trade and policing the rainforest is a mammoth task, which perhaps can never be fully accomplished. The only hope may lie in cutting back demand. Most orchids on sale in garden shops are artificially propagated, with Singapore having played a major role in the development of orchid propagation techniques. Nonetheless, for the conscientious shopper, it is probably worth paying more attention to the provenance of your garden plants before buying them, just as people are paying attention to the provenance of the fish they eat and the coffee they drink.

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