Orchids Have `Fatal Attraction' For Some Fans

Possessive collectors endanger wild varieties

ORCHIDS inspire the love - sometimes the obsessional passion - of collectors, amateur growers, professional hybridists, growers, traders, artists, travelers, photographers, botanists, and horticulturalists.

And all these orchid enthusiasts may - or may not - also be conservationists.

Questions of conservation come into sharp focus with orchids. Of all plants, they bring into confrontation humanity's desire for possession and nature's need for protection. Only cacti have a similarly fatal attraction to collectors - and illegal traders.

Wild orchids are still being discovered, and new beauties can command surprising prices.

According to Ger van Vliet, plants officer for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), plants as well as animals were covered by the convention from the start, but only since the late 1980s have CITES regulations for plants begun to be effective. Mr. van Vliet spoke on the possible conflict between international trade in orchids and conservation of the plants at the recent Glasgow World Orchid Conference and Show. First signed in 1973, today CITES has 119 countries as signatories.

The cooperation of the countries involved, and their customs officers, has been stimulated by several successful prosecutions of illegal traders who were smuggling and dealing in endangered orchids. In 1989, Henry Azadehdel was imprisoned in Britain for this. Van Vliet knows of "several cases of confiscations recently in the United States." While European countries, slower to change, are "now moving in the right direction," Australia "does not hesitate to put anybody in jail for two years who goes agains t the legislation for both animals and plants," he says.

Illegal importation of orchids, van Vliet says, "is mainly concentrated in the US." He also mentions the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Japan as markets.

In his conference talk, van Vliet called on orchid society members "to suppress that feeling of desire to possess a rare species, if that would be to the detriment of the survival of the species concerned."

He said that "many orchid enthusiasts ... sincerely believe in conservation. But when they go to the countries of origin of their beloved species, many ... seem to forget that idealism."

Orchids fall under two CITES appendixes:

Appendix I includes all the species of which trade in specimens of wild origin is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Appendix II contains the species of which commercial or personal trade in wild specimens is permitted, on the condition that the country of export issues an export permit.

SPECIAL-CASE, endangered orchids are covered by Appendix I. But all orchids are covered by Appendix II, even hybrids. Hybrids are included because the recognition of individual species is difficult and also because part of the aim of the convention was to monitor trade in orchids generally. But Appendix II listing does not mean that trade is prohibited. It means bureaucracy: filling out forms.

Trading in nursery-propagated orchids is legal. Since seedlings are grown in flasks, such "clean" material cannot be confused with jungle-collected plants, and international trade in flasked seedlings of even Appendix I species is not a problem.

Van Vliet wants to "facilitate trade in artificially propagated plants," he says, without "drowning in bureaucratic systems."

But Michael Tibbs, director of a British company that breeds and trades in orchids, the Exotic Plant Co. Ltd., says he finds that "a lot of people" say CITES is "a demon." Before he set up in business on his own, he "worked for a big company ... and, I can assure you, they think CITES is the worst thing that ever happened."

It isn't that such objectors don't understand CITES regulations, he argues. "It's because they ... always do things at the last minute."

Mr. Tibbs concedes that if you "work the system" - as he does - "and a pretty long and tedious system it can be, especially because you have to write out applications for every species," you find that "you have no problems."

Van Vliet confirms this. "The people who are doing the illegal trade know very well ... what risks they are taking, and they try to go round it, partly to get the plants and partly also for tax reasons."

Asked if CITES is now having a curbing effect on illegal trade, Tibbs replies: "Sort of."

COUNTRIES that are party to CITES vary in the degree to which they implement it, and there are countries, Tibbs says, where you can get a CITES permit by giving "a backhander" to the right official.

But Noel McGough, conservation officer at Kew (Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens), acknowledges that "paperwork is a problem" for even honest nurserymen. The system still needs fine-tuning "so that you don't penalize" legal traders, he says.

Mr. McGough adds that experts like himself do not find it hard to differentiate between wild-collected and propagated orchids. Wild plants bear "the marks of the jungle."

Though "some nurseries in the tropics do grow plants outside as well, they are still from a fairly managed environment, sprayed and so forth," McGough says. Also, CITES officials "look at and know nurseries overseas." They can recognize material from such sources.

Familiarity with newly discovered and named species is also essential for those implementing CITES. McGough says that "if you have an orchid which has only been described a year ago, and you see a full-grown flowering plant of it, you know ... it's wild-collected."

CITES covers animals as well as plants. McGough says that "across the board in conservation, [plants] are treated as second-rate citizens. Everybody identifies with a panda."

Or, as van Vliet puts it, "You can't have a cactus as a pet."

Maybe that's not quite true of orchids. Orchid collectors love them so intensely that they pay extraordinary prices for a newly found species. Until it becomes a legitimate nursery-raised, mass-produced plant, traders will do almost anything to obtain it in the wild: It's a fast buck, since growing orchids from seed can be a lengthy process. In the meantime, a wild species can be in extreme danger of becoming too many people's favorite plant-pet.

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