• Rhian Bland & Jacob Phelps

Patent analysis as a conservation tool

Although the IUCN Red List highlights the thousands of species threatened by commercial trade, there is often little published information about what species are commercially used for.

Patent analysis could provide a novel tool for identifying and predicting which wildlife products the market considers commercially valuable.

In the first such attempt to use patent databases to inform conservation, researchers at Leiden University recently used this method on orchids. They produced the first systematic patent review to inventory all the recorded commercial uses for terrestrial orchids used to produce salep.

Salep is an edible powder produced from tubers of wild orchids, used in Turkey as the main ingredient in the drink salep, and an ice cream called maras dondurma. These traditional products have been reported as main drivers of decline in the wild orchid populations used to make them: in Turkey alone, salep harvest is estimated to use tubers from up to 120 million orchids each year.

Anacamptis morio, an orchid species harvested to produce salep. Source: Pete Stroh

Conservationists are increasingly concerned about these long-standing, commercial uses for terrestrial orchids to make salep powder. Importantly, however, patent analysis revealed that commercial interest in these orchid species extends much further than the production of salep drink and ice cream.

They found that 89 patent applications had been granted since 1886 for commercial uses of salep, ranging from industrial materials to medicine formulations. These patent applications were granted across the globe including Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan, UK, and USA.

Although patent analysis cannot reveal trade-volumes, conservation priorities or trade dynamics, they can help indicate which species might be facing pressures from commercial trade. The authors argue that, in order to protect commercially-valuable wildlife, conservationists must engage with the full extent of their utility and commercial interest.

You can read the full paper here to read more about patent analysis as a tool to examine wildlife trade.

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