Invasion of the orchid snatchers

The Rothschild orchid (c) W K Fletcher / SPL The Gold of Kinabalu: orchid treasure on the edge of extinction

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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 say the illegal collection of orchids is pushing species to the edge of extinction, with dire consequences for biodiversity.

Start Quote

To a dedicated collector of wild-sourced orchids, price has no bearing”

End Quote Dr Richard Thomas TRAFFIC International

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.

Sex appeal

Admired for their beauty, orchids make up the largest family of flowering plants (Orchidaceae) with over 26,000 species.

The plants vary enormously from tiny 3-4mm Bulbophyllum minutissimum to 20m long vanillas: lianas that grow high up in 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.

Orchids: The bigger picture

A bee orchid (c) V fleming / spl

Orchids are often referred to as indicators of a healthy eco-system

This is because many species are highly sensitive to disturbance

Orchids can only germinate due to their symbiotic relationship with a microscopic fungus so soil must be stable for them to grow

The plants also interact closely with invertebrates

Bee orchids (Ophrys) are named because their labellums mimic the appearance and scent of female bees, attracting males that then spread their pollen

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," says orchid expert Dr David Roberts from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, UK.

"Smuggling only affects the groups that are specifically in demand which isn't all orchids. However for the groups that are sought after, such as slipper orchids, it is a big problem."

High price

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 $5000.

After its discovery in 1987 this slipper orchid, remarkable for its imposing horizontal petals, was stripped from the wild by orchid smugglers bringing it close to extinction.

Despite reintroduction of the plant from cultivated seedlings, it is still described as endangered and its few known wild locations in Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Malaysia are kept a closely guarded secret.

However, not all species are afforded the same protection.

Start Quote

Orchids are naturally rare with many species only being known from a handful of populations”

End Quote Dr David Roberts Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology

Last year, Asian orchid expert Dr Jaap J Vermeulen studied an orchid collected by conservationists in a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

But before he could describe the new species to science, it had been introduced to the black market.

"Bulbophyllum kubahense is a particularly beautiful species with a dense [cluster] of fairly large, white, heavily purple spotted flowers. That makes it desirable to orchid growers," Dr Vermeulen explains.

"Traders found the species in a conservation area, and first thought that is was a particularly luxuriant form of another, similar looking species... Plants appeared in nurseries in Sarawak, Singapore and Thailand."

Through his analysis, published in the journal Plant Systematics and Evolution, Dr Vermeulen confirmed that the plant was a "true novelty".

"It is beautiful, and it is rare: only known from a single locality near Kuching, Sarawak. That will put the price up, and with it the collecting pressure on the natural population," he warns.

Populations stripped

This is not the first time an orchid has been endangered before it has even been formally described.

Such is the demand from collectors, smugglers scour the globe for new species of orchid, sometimes removing whole populations of plants before anyone else knows of their existence.

Dr Vermeulen cites examples from peninsular Malaysia and Vietnam but the most famous example comes from Peru.

Phragmipedium kovachii was first found in 2001 and is referred to as one of the most important natural history discoveries of the last decade.

A foot tall with striking purple blooms, it is a distinctive member of the lady's slipper family, named for their slipper-shaped petal pouches.

Orchid dealer James Kovach bought the orchid from a roadside vendor in Peru and travelled back to his native US with it.

Within days, the Peruvian authorities asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate the plant, as all Phragmipedium are banned from export under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

This purple giant is one of the decade's top natural history discoveries

After its initial description, illegally plucked specimens of P. kovachii were reportedly changing hands amongst frenzied growers for as much as $10,000.

Kovach received two years probation and was made to pay a fine of $1000 for violating the endangered species act.

The orchid still bears the name kovachii but is now limited to a few authorised growers in Peru.

Although conservationists acknowledge the prosecution, they say the fines are not high enough to deter smugglers from their billion dollar enterprise.

"To a dedicated collector of wild-sourced orchids, price has no bearing," says Dr Richard Thomas, from the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic International.

Dr Thomas says it is "notoriously difficult" to estimate the value of illicit trade.

Ruthless collection

According to Traffic's figures, the legal trade in live orchids in Europe alone involves more than 370 million plants.

An illustration of the rare Bulbophyllum kubahense (c) J Vermeulen An illustration of the rare Bulbophyllum kubahense

These orchids adhere to the CITES regulations: they come from licensed nurseries that hold the appropriate permits for international trade.

In these nurseries, single specimens are duplicated through micropropagation: creating thousands of cloned plants for the consumer market.

Despite advances, this process is costly and time-consuming.

The cloned plants are also considered inferior by collectors that value the variety in wild orchids' blooms.

"There are a small number of hard core 'collectors' for whom only a wild-sourced orchid will do, and they can be ruthless in their pursuit of this goal," says Dr Thomas.

"This can have a devastating impact on newly discovered species, where there is likely to be a demand created for the plant almost overnight."

Protecting the future

The UK's rarest orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, receives round-the-clock police surveillance where it grows on a Lancashire golf course.

But this level of protection is not globally consistent.

In the rainforests of South America and Asia, protecting individual species is an epic task.

Experts examine a shipment of orchids (c) HMRC/UKBA Experts and customs officers join forces to protect vulnerable

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.

"For species with highly restricted ranges and severely threatened habitat, any removal of wild specimens poses a significant threat," says Dr Thomas.

"The loss of any one species is a tragedy - the world needs rich biological diversity to survive. Species have taken millennia to evolve, but can be lost in days."

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