The National, Friday, May 20, 2011
Ruthless hunters track their prey around the globe, snatching stunning individuals from their homes before they can even be named.
The beauties only surface in the shadiest of nurseries and high prices for their lives are agreed under the counter by hungry-eyed collectors.
This is not the plot from a harrowing tale of people smuggling but the fate of rare and highly prized orchids.
The plants have inspired frenzied collection since the 18th century with their lustrous blooms and incredible variety.
Now, scientists said the illegal collection of orchids is pushing species to the edge of extinction, with dire consequences for biodiversity.
With some vulnerable species available on the black market before they can even be formally named, biologists and customs officers alike are battling to preserve the captivating plants.
Admired for their beauty, orchids make up the largest family of flowering plants (Orchidaceae) with more than 26,000 species.
The plants vary enormously from tiny 3-4mm Bulbophyllum minutissimum to 20m long vanillas: lianas that grow high up in the rainforest.
What unites them is the unique way they germinate from seeds, developing a tuberous mass of cells to form a seedling plant.
For orchid admirers, however, it is the sensual differences between the plants that inspire such admiration and many are driven wild by the unique shape, scent and sight of new species.
Victorian Britons referred to the condition as “orchidelerium”, an insatiable lust for collecting the plants.
From delicate ghost orchids to the beautifully coloured petals of Cattleya, the aesthetic appeal of orchids is obvious.
Throughout history, the plants have been considered “overtly sexual” with voluptuous blooms sporting enlarged lips (labellum): pouting platforms to entice insect pollinators.
But, the individuality and appeal of orchids also makes them vulnerable.
“Orchids are naturally rare with many species only being known from a handful of populations,” orchid expert Dr David Roberts, from the Durrell institute of conservation and ecology at the University of Kent, UK, said.
“Smuggling only affects the groups that are specifically in demand which is not all orchids.
“However, for the groups that are sought after, such as slipper orchids, it is a big problem.”
Rare species can fetch a pretty penny; a single stem of the Rotchschild’s Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum), known as the Gold of Kinabalu, is reported to command prices of around US$5,000.
Beyond the practical difficulties of surveying entire rainforests with limited resources, conservationists also have to contend with the pressures of developing nations.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s orchid specialist group, tropical orchid habitat is vanishing as timber is removed, minerals mined and land cleared for roads and housing.
Some collectors insist that, by removing orchids from areas under threat from human development, they are protecting the future of species.
For some orchids, their only hope lies in ex-situ conservation: cultivation in nurseries is the only thing keeping species like Paphiopedilum vietnamenese from extinction.
In the interests of biodiversity however, conservationists maintain that orchids must be protected in their natural environment. – BBC