Plant Graded

Why are Some Orchids Illegal?

When people hear about the illegal wildlife trade, some of the first images that often come to mind are probably African elephants getting killed just to get their ivory, pangolins getting captured in huge numbers, and smuggling of rhino horns for medical purposes.

why are some orchids illegal

However, what many people don’t know and realize is that there is another serious but extensive wildlife trade across the globe that is often overlooked. This is even though it involves thousands of species being traded unsustainably and illegally. This illegal trade involves none other than the lovely orchids.

But why are some orchids illegal in the first place? Continue reading below to learn more about the illegal trade of orchids.

Why is It Illegal to Trade Orchids?

Orchids are probably best known for the more than one billion mass-market pot plants being traded globally every year. However, there is another significant commercial trade of wild orchids used as ornamental plants, medicine, and food.

It is even though all orchid species have been listed by the CITES or Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. CITES is responsible for the regulation and monitoring of the commercial trade of wild animals and plants that might be endangered by exploitation.

While CITES discussions typically focus on elephants as well as other charismatic mammals, orchid plants actually make up more than 70% of all the species that the Convention has listed.

To emphasize the issues linked with the unsustainable and illegal trade of orchids, there was a review paper published by a global team of authors from the Global Trade Programme of the IUCN Orchid Specialist Group in December 2017. The said paper offers the very first international overview of international trade that draws attention to not just its rich diversity but even the conservation concerns connected to it.

The orchid species being traded right now include the following:

Edible Orchids

Most people would have consumed orchids without even realizing it. It is because of the myriad products in the global trade that contain seeds of Vanilla orchids that were artificially propagated.

But this legal trade is just one good example of how orchids are used as ingredients in drink and food products. The perfect example of this is chikanda. It is a type of cake made using the ground tubers of terrestrial orchids. Chikanda is consumed in many countries in East and Central Africa.

Salep is another example of a product made using the ground tubers of terrestrial orchid species. It is used as an ingredient in ice cream and hot drinks and is mostly consumed in Turkey as well as other neighboring countries.

Medicinal Orchids

Many different species of orchids are also used in traditional medicines in various countries as well as on a lot of different scales, which, in some cases, even include on a commercial level. The tubers and stems of some species, for example, are being used in traditional Chinese medicine. These are added to products that aim to boost general health conditions and medicines that address specific issues.

The ayurvedic medicine of South Asia also similarly uses a minimum of 94 orchid species in different medicinal preparations. Aside from this, orchids are also used all over the world in many health products. These include the bodybuilding supplements available and sold in the USA and Europe.

Ornamental Orchids

For many centuries, orchids have been grown and cultivated as ornamental plants, most typically for their gorgeous flowers as well as for their unique growth habit, patterned leaves, and scent. In Victorian Europe, the ornamental trade of orchids was characterized by the obsessive collectors that suffer from orchid fever, also known as orchidelirium, which resulted in these people paying large sums just to get their hands on unusual and rare species.

Even if most of the ornamental orchids being traded globally today are plants grown and cultivated in greenhouses and cut flowers, there continues to be an extensive commercial trade out in the wild, typically plants that are collected illegally.

Illegal Harvesting

Harvesting orchids for illegal trade is a specific and pressing concern in Southeast Asia where several species like the Paphiopedilum canhii or Canh’s slipper orchid have already been driven to extinction because of its collection for global trade.

Despite being diverse, all of the trades above have been associated with over-harvesting causing the decline and eventually the loss of certain orchid species in the wild. Aside from this, the specific nature of the trade also presents serious challenges to the conservationists who try to monitor and regulate the trade.

These challenges encompass the direct threat from various forms of illegal trade and harvest, quickly changing the patterns of behavior of the suppliers and consumers; the large number of orchid species in the trade that make the identification process tricky; and also, the fact that there is very little known information when it comes to the ecology of the traded species or the kind of threats that they face when out in the wild.

Last but not the least, although the public may be paying more attention to the illegal trade that involves animals, as far as the policymakers and conservation organizations are concerned, plants are usually not considered a priority. It is the reason why very minimal funding is being allotted either to the action or research intended to solve the unsustainable trade.

In the hopes of addressing these issues, the authors of the review paper suggest that the conservation community must pay more attention to carrying out additional research on the dynamics of trade as well as the effects of collection for trade. They also suggest the need to strengthen the legal trade of orchids and at the same time, develop and adopt measures to lessen illegal trade. They also emphasize on raising the profile of the orchid trade not just among conservationists and policymakers but even the general public as a whole.

With all the concerns associated with orchids, it is not a surprise that trading some species is considered illegal.