Orchids are beautiful, fascinating flowers. There are over 25,000 species of orchids, and many are them are threatened, endangered or extinct, usually due to habitat destruction or poaching. Orchid smuggling is contributing to the loss of many species of orchid in the wild.
It is legal to trade in nursery-produced orchids. Orchid growers use artificial propagation and modern greenhouses that are capable of imitating the temperature, moisture, and wind conditions that orchids thrive upon in the wild. Nursery owners often outdo nature by producing plants superior to those found in the wild, healthier and with flowers that are larger and have more interesting colors.
For two reasons, orchid smuggling continues unabated. First of all, nursery-raised orchids are expensive. This is because it is time-consuming to raise orchids and the technology is not cheap. It is often cheaper, easier, and quicker to obtain orchids illegally from the wild. Because it is so much easier to collect orchids in the wild, smugglers often can undercut the prices of legitimate growers. Secondly, orchid collectors often find nursery-grown orchids to lack the exotic aura and mystery of wild orchids.
In Nepal for example wild orchids are illegally harvested and traded for use in local traditional medicine, horticulture, and international trade. Although the orchid trade has a long tradition, and illegal export to China, India and Hong Kong is rife there was no clear picture on the extend of the issue.
A new study now documents for the first time trade, species diversity, and traditional use of wild-harvested orchids in Nepal. The researchers did field surveys of markets and conducted interviews. Trade volumes and approximate income were estimated based on surveys and current market prices. Orchid samples were identified to species level using a combination of morphology and DNA Barcoding. The results are distressing:
Estimates show that 9.4 tons of wild orchids were illegally traded from the study sites during 2008/2009. A total of 60 species of wild orchids were reported to be used in traditional medicinal practices to cure at least 38 different ailments, including energizers, aphrodisiacs and treatments of burnt skin, fractured or dislocated bones, headaches, fever and wounds.
That is just one area where illegal harvesting occurs. If one would extrapolate that on a global scale I am sure it would show an alarming picture about the status of orchids on our planet. The researchers in Nepal are taking it to the next level and make recommendations on alternatives that meet the demand and economic needs but still include proper conservation:
Collection of wild orchids was found to be widespread in Nepal, but illegal trade is threatening many species in the wild. Establishment of small-scale sustainable orchid breeding enterprises could be a valuable alternative for the production of medicinal orchids for local communities. Critically endangered species should be placed on CITES Appendix I to provide extra protection to those species. DNA barcoding is an effective method for species identification and monitoring of illegal cross-border trade.