Our IUCN Blog: Challenging "Plant Blindness"
Plant blindness is a key challenge for the IUCN Orchid Specialist Group's efforts to promote orchid conservation and sustainable use. The ability to regulate and enforce laws surrounding the illegal trade of orchids is consistently hampered by plant blindness, a term coined 20 years ago by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler, where plants are systematically overlooked in favour of a few charismatic species of fauna.
We published an IUCN Blog, "Illegal wildlife trade endangers plants - but few are listening", to explain how plants are consistently left off the agenda at major international conferences on illegal wildlife trade, despite them being some of the world's most trafficked and endangered wildlife.
Orchids, the largest family of flowering plants, are threatened globally largely due to their medicinal, ornamental and edible uses. Orchids make up over 70% of all species listed on the CITES Convention, yet this importance is poorly reflected in illegal wildlife trade discussions and actions. For example, orchids are rarely on the agenda for CITES discussions, which are dominated by focus on trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn. None of the large international conservation NGOs have projects focused on orchids. The 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade focused almost exclusively on animals.
While illegal trades in animals are devastating and deserving of discussion, it is paramount that they not monopolise conservation efforts to the detriment of other species. If the goal is to conserve all of Earth's biodiversity, then flora mustn't be sidelined in favour of fauna.
Alarmingly, groups of plants such as orchids are often suffering the consequences of this animal bias. A number of orchid species have gone extinct due to illegal trade, and we have dozens of reports from around the world that orchid species can no longer be found in their native habitats due to poaching. Scientists worry they many orchid species are going extinct before we even know they exist.
However, plant blindness is not inevitable; "Research has shown how a variety of non-Western cultural traditions treat plants with great respect, valuing plants in non-hierarchical relationships with humans and animals (Balding and Williams, 2016)."
The Orchid Specialist Group has been working to raise the profile of orchids at CITES Events. And, in 2018, we hosted the first information stall on plant conservation at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. While these represent some progress, plants must be given full consideration as threatened wildlife in future global policy.