Trends in illegal trade of wild ornamental orchids, and possible solutions
David Haelterman is a Belgian agronomist, life-long orchid enthusiast and naturalist guide, based in Colombia. He shares his observations about how orchid societies and hobbyists need to do more to stop illegal trade and promote conservation.
During the Victorian Era, the massive extractions of tropical orchids for cultivation in Europe led some highly ornamental species to the verge of extinction. This, as well as the destruction of natural habitats through deforestation for cattle grazing, mining, oil extraction, urbanization and more, means that orchids face a particularly critical moment.
In 1975, the international CITES Convention, which regulates the international trade of wildlife, began to restrict orchid trade among countries. It required orchid growers to obtain special permits to import and export protected plants. Many countries also restricted the harvest and trade of wild orchids. These restrictions limited poaching and created incentives for large-scale, legal propagation of orchids in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, the USA and some tropical countries.
Today, one of the biggest--and probably most underestimated--threats in to many tropical orchids is is the fast-growing, local demand for ornamental orchids in regions such as Latin America and Sotheast Asia. Before the “internet era”, poaching of wild plants for personal collections existed, but local orchid growers were limited in numbers, and access to information was scarce for people who were not scientists or members of orchid societies.
Increasingly, however, wild orchids are being recognised for their potential economic value—illegally traded to plant hobbyists locally and in neighbouring countries. Illegal trade is growing again, facilitated by social media and traded via private or public mail services. Most of this trade is completely undetected, and both national regulation and CITES protections are overlooked. Unlike in previous eras, much of this trade is now often local and regional. Orchid growing in Thailand drives demand for species from across Southeast Asia, and endemic Colombian orchids are as exotic and desirable among Ecuadorian growers as they are among Europeans hobbyists.
Odontoglossum crispum, endemic and endangered species from Colombia
Here are some ideas of actions we can undertake to solve this situation:
Rural communities in tropical countries are often hired by orchid traders and hobbyists to illegally collect wild orchids. Education with these communities is crucial for people to realize that orchids are vital for the health of local ecosystems, a territory with a national heritage to be proud of. Many orchid species are restricted in distribution to a region (endemics) and can quickly disappear if not protected.
Orchid societies should focus greater efforts into the education of their own members, and in situ conservation of orchid species. Education and conservation have been a key focus of ornithological societies globally, recognising a sense of responsibility for the species at the center of their hobbies and societies. Similarly, orchid societies who facilitate and award orchid ownership, should also do more to ensure stewardship and species survival in the wild.
Increased efforts to propagate endangered orchid species may help achieve two goals. It may help to lower the pressure on wild populations, if they are sold at a reasonable price to compete on local markets. Propagation can also provide stock for species reintroduction into secure sites where they can be protected, such as in well-monitored private properties and nature reserves.
This is the time for the orchid growing community to do radically more in order to save these natural wonders and the ecosystem they depend on.
Cattleya trianae, Colombia's national flower, is also an endangered and endemic species.