The headlines trumpet case after case of orchid smuggling. A record setting heist in East Bohemia last year allowed an organized group of thieves to get away with nearly 600 protected plants from a nature reserve in Eastern Czechoslovakia. The thieves covered nearly thirty-two acres in their attempts to gain the plants. While it was not exactly a rare orchid and is among fifty varieties that grow in that area, both botanists and florists say the plants will fetch a substantial price on the black market. To avid orchid lovers and collectors this is truly horrible; for the average orchid grower they may shake their heads in wonderment. Why would someone go to the trouble to smuggle orchids? The bottom line is that there are not that many orchids, so they are in high demand and bring high prices. While many may say that the problem is peculiar to the overseas market, recent headlines outlined a case closer to home in Washington D.C. where two men were indicted for smuggling the protected orchid specimen known as Tropical Lady’s slipper. This is in direct violation of American law since all species within the United States are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a treaty to which the United States and over 160 other nations are parties. The United States implements the CITES through the Endangered Species Act. Currently all species within the United States are covered.
This treaty came about because while there are over 25,000 different types of orchids, many of them are threatened, endangered or extinct, usually due to habitat destruction or poaching. The practice of orchid smuggling is contributing to the loss of many species of orchid in the wild. Conservationists provide an interesting debate about the smuggling of endangered and threatened wild orchids asking that if a species is in demand on the market, is it most likely to be preserved if the market is allowed some access to it or if the market is allowed no access to it at all?
It still may lead one to ask why are orchids so highly prized? European aristocrats began collecting orchids in the 1800s, when they found they could grow them in terrariums. Soon, European aristocrats, especially the British, found it fashionable to go on safaris to South America and Asia to acquire new types of the plant. At that time there were no laws or regulations concerning orchids. The collection mentality inspired by orchids is sometimes referred to as “orchidelirium” and could be seen early on. Some of these Europeans were known to find a new orchid in a valley, pick every flower in sight, and then burn the land so as to corner the market in the species.
It was not until the beginning of the environmental movement of the 1960s that regulations were enacted to protect wild orchids and their habitats. Third World nations then realized that their environmental heritage was being stolen from them by the rich Westerners. Today almost all orchids are protected by national laws and international treaties. And, as stated above, primary protection comes from the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) treaty. The main premise of the treaty stipulates that any species of plant or animal that is endangered cannot be commercially traded. Also, rare species that are not yet endangered may be removed from the wild and commercially traded, but those who do so must adhere to strict regulations designed to ensure that no more orchid species become endangered or extinct. It is important to note that it is perfectly legal to trade in nursery-produced orchids. Orchid growers use seeds or tips of leaves to grow orchid hybrids in their nurseries.