Reproduced with permission from the American Orchid Society's Orchids Magazine
When it comes to harvesting orchids from the wild, we likely think of the illegal collection of ornamental plants–either very charismatic large flowers, or newly-discovered species, or unusual species favored by niche collectors. Few people know that many orchids are also harvested and traded as medicinal plants.
Nepal is a center of the medicinal orchid trade, where plants are harvested for domestic medicinal use, in a region where many people have limited access to public healthcare. Plants are also harvested and illegally exported to a number of other countries, for use in the Ayurvedic, Unani and Chinese Traditional Medicines. Our team is working to understand the scale and nature of this under-recognized trade.
Nepal hosts more than 500 species of orchids. The country’s unusual and dramatic elevational cross-section, from near sea-level to over 8,000 meters, creates a wide range of environmental niches. Dendrobium aphyllum thrives in the hot lowland Terai regions, while endangered Cypripedium himalaicum lady slippers grow in the cold highlands up to 4,500 meters, and species like Eria coronaria are foun
d across a wide range of elevations and forest types. This diversity is also reflected in the wide range of uses that people have found for orchids across the region.
Researching medicinal orchid trade
Our team, including researchers from the Nepali NGO Greenhood, Lancaster University and the IUCN SSC Orchid Specialist Group – Global Trade Programme has been undertaking the first study on the trade of medicinal orchid in Nepal, one of the first of its kind globally. Although we know orchids are listed in the pharmacopeia of multiple medicinal traditions, and have anecdotes about their harvest from the wild, no research has focused on understanding which species are being commonly and commercially harvested to satisfy these trades.
In Nepal, wild orchid harvest and trade was legal until 2017, though official trade records show only a very small-scale trade. Since then, the trade has been banned, and the issue of wild orchid harvest is largely considered resolved. Indeed, when we started our project we were somewhat uncertain if the trade we observed during our scoping research was indeed as large as we suspected.
We began visiting medicinal plant shops and orchid traders, who eventually led us to several rural villages around the country, where we are now documenting the massive-scale harvest of medicinal orchids in at least 6 genera.
Many species that we may recognize for their ornamental value, are also species harvested for commercial medicinal plant trade. For example, many ornamental Dendrobium species are commonly exported from to China as shi-hu, used for thousands of years as a cure for, among other things, gastrointestinal problems and cataract, and some species have demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. However, many medicinal orchid species have not been assessed for pharmacologically active compounds or medicinal properties
The trade of medicinal orchids forms a part of rural livelihoods in some communities around the country, where entire villages can rely heavily on traditional harvest of many different families of medicinal plants. Indeed, many people in rural parts of South and Southeast Asia rely almost exclusively on plant medicine, with no access to public health. However, the people harvesting the plants are often marginalized indigenous groups who receive little for their work. The plants are sold into a network of intermediaries, traders and exporters, which we are currently working to understand.
This beautiful species forms carpets of pink flowers across hillsides and trees in the mid-hills of Central Nepal. We learned that many local communities harvest these plants, usually very secretly because they fear enforcement. The pseudobulbs are collected during the peak of the blooming season, from pine-dominated forests. We observed one site where many hundreds of plants were removed, the large bulbs collected and the flowers and small bulbs discarded (with small hopes they might re-establish). The pseudobulbs are then dried in the sun, packed, and often intentionally mislabeled as common Himalayan Ground Gooseberry, the edible rhizomes of the fern species Nephrolepis cordifolia, to avoid detection. We do not yet know much about where these plants are going, but it is documented for use in Ayurvedic medicine for use as a tonic with the powdered bulbs mixed with milk, and as a treatment for superficial l wounds. We suspect these are being used domestically, and also being illegally exported to India.
a) Pleione praecox in flower in-situ in Central Nepal, b) remains of Pln. praecox after the large tubers were harvested, c) Drying pseudobulbs of Pln. praecox in preparation for trade.
This species has a unique status among Nepal’s orchids. Long-valued for its wide use in both Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, including consumed with milk and honey as an aphrodisiac, it has often long commanded highest market prices among Nepal’s orchids. The species has also been one of the few orchid species identified as a national conservation concern, with all harvest, transport and trade banned since 1995, even while harvest of other orchids was still legal. However, illegal trade continues, and this is one of the few orchid species that has been subject to enforcement seizures in Nepal. In 2017, 75 kilograms of dried pseudobulbs were seized on Gorkha, representing nearly 20,000 individuals and with an estimated market value of US$166, 280. From our work, it is clear that this is only a tiny fraction of actual trade volumes.
Dactylorhiza hatagirea, a terrestrial species, most actively collected from high-level sub-alpine regions–areas just below the tree line that are seasonally covered with snow, growing in shrubby grasslands. We have started regular monitoring with 16 of the harvesters targeting this species to better understand the scale of the trade. These Indigenous communities have long traditions of wild plant harvest, and it forms the basis of their livelihoods. They collect many different species of plants, but Dact. hatagirea is among the most valuable, and sensitive to collect.
This high-elevation terrestrial orchid, Satyrium nepalense, is found across the Indian Subcontinent and into South-Central China. We have seen it growing in grasslands, along highways, in ditches, highlighting just how adaptable this plant is in its native range. However, we have also seen commercial harvest in several regions of the country, and it seems to be one of the most heavily harvested species. The plant is uprooted and its tubers are harvested, purportedly to make a tonic in Ayurvedic Medicine, variously to treat kidney problems, against dysentery and fever, and applied to superficial wounds.
A future for Nepal’s wild orchids
Drawing on these initial baselines, we are working to draw attention to orchid conservation in Nepal. Few organizations or government officials have ever considered it much of a priority–despite the species’ legal protections. We are engaging with District Forest Offices and Community Forest User Groups in 4 regions, helping them to recognize the species most targeted by trade, and explaining that their mandates include protecting not only charismatic animals, but also plants such as orchids. We have been surprised by officials’ interest to learn more, many of whom say they have never even heard that orchids are commercially traded.
We are also collaborating with a network of orchidologists to understand how, if at all, this wild orchid harvest might be better regulated and made more sustainable. This is important because bans have proved ineffective, as so many rural livelihoods depend on wild plant harvest, and enforcement is challenging, under-funded and infrequent. Moreover, both Nepal’s laws and international agreements allow for the legal trade of wild orchids, if that trade can be done sustainably. This forms part of the challenge of balancing the country’s existing medicinal traditions, commercial demands, rural livelihoods and species conservation.
We have been surprised by the huge scale of commercial orchid trade in Nepal, and the diversity of species that are being targeted. For some species, there are no previous reports, trade data or publications that we know of even highlighting that they are in commercial trade. Orchid trade in Nepal - like in many countries - is poorly documented, and it is difficult to infer about its scale, affected species, trade dynamics. This not only highlights the challenge of protecting orchids in the wild, but also the lack of priority that orchids are getting priority from enforcement bodies, conservation organizations, researchers and orchid enthusiasts. Orchids require our attention, not just as beautiful plants, but also as species that have many other values around the world, and that need to be recognized as a major - but often overlooked - conservation priority.
This work was funded by the UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. We thank the harvesters and orchid experts who have spoken with use. We thank officials from the Division Forest Offices, Nepal CITES Authority, Department of Forest and Soil Conservation, and Department of Plant Resources. Thank you to the NepalOrchids team at Greenhood Nepal.
Photos by Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal.