Let’s talk about orchids!

Reshu Bashyal
July 7, 2021

Did you know orchids that are the most traded type of wildlife in the world? And that they cover more than 70% of all species whose international trade is restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)?

To be honest, I had little idea about this until recently. I grew up hearing stories about “wild animals” visiting our farmland. My grandparents would exaggerate their encounters with these “rare visitors” to make more memorable stories. Sadly, they didn’t tell me any stories about plants. I wonder why. Is that all because they didn’t feel plants were worth it?

But this is exactly what is happening across homes, businesses, schools, and offices everywhere: people are routinely forgetting about the amazing plant species all around us. It is described as “plant blindness”, a term that makes a perfect sense. Otherwise, why is there so little buzz about one of the largest families of flowering plants?

Often called “pandas of the world”, orchids are amazingly diverse – there are more than 30,000 species across the world.  Dozens of new species are still discovered every year! Some grow on rocks, can live on the ground (terrestrial), on the trunks and branches of trees (epiphytes), or under the ground. They come in every size, shape, and color imaginable. Nepal alone also hosts 437 known species of orchids, due to a wide variety of topographic and climatic conditions.

Orchids have significant economic importance, particularly in horticulture and floristry. Most of this trade involves sustainable, legal plants grown in greenhouses, with more than 1.1 billion live orchid plants traded internationally over the past 20 years (UNEP 2017). However, there is also a large, illegal trade in wild, protected orchids. This includes ornamental plants, as well as many species, are used medicinally. There is a huge commercial trade of medicinal orchids, especially for the Chinese and South Asian Ayurvedic traditional medicines.

Last year, the Orchid Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) published a report that explored the conservation status of this important but often forgotten plant group.  They highlighted that 129 orchid species are being harvested from the wild and used for different medicinal purposes. This includes as many as 94 orchid species harvested, traded and used medicinally within Nepal. This clearly indicates how exceptionally diverse Nepal’s orchids are, and how much our culture has traditionally celebrated and relied upon wild orchids.

Unfortunately, this high demand for wild plants for medicinal and ornamental trade has also contributed to unsustainable collection and trade, even in Nepal. This has been threatening Nepal’s orchids for a long time, but we hear a few stories about it. For instance, in 1985 Royal Botanic Gardens Kew reported more than 100 trucks of wild, illegally-collected and traded orchids for transport to India to prepare Ayurvedic products. Likewise, another report (published in 2002) on Nepalese Orchid Species reported that around 5 tons of orchid tubers (of the species Orchis latifolia) were harvested annually for export, at an approximate value of USD900 per ton. We also know there is a significant trade within Nepal for domestic use, although we have few stories. There is a high possibility of other similar incidents are waiting to be uncovered and told.

Existing research reports that Nepal’s medicinal orchids are mostly extracted from the wild using unsustainable methods that are leading to their rapid decline.  Because of the ways in which orchids grow, uncontrolled harvest and trade of wild plants can quickly wipe out an entire species from the locality.

Orchids do have protections in Nepal.  All orchids in Nepal are listed under CITES Appendix II, which limits their international trade. This designation means that they may become “threatened with extinction” unless trade is closely controlled, and that international trade needs export permits which are only granted if certain conditions are met – namely that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of species in the wild. In addition, all trade in the medicinal orchid, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, is banned for collection, use, sale, distribution, and transport under the Forest Act of 1993. The species is listed as “Endangered” under the Conservation Assessment and Management Plan.

However, these rules are rarely enforced, because large parts of the country are remote, and there is a lack of specific understanding of government rules and regulations. In addition, many people do not think about plants, including orchids, as conservation priorities. Hence, the wild orchids of Nepal through illegal means, end up in the markets of India, China and occasionally to Hong Kong.

Despite these limitations, there have been praiseworthy efforts from the Government of Nepal to conserve orchids. In its fourth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Nepal set targets to reduce the decline of orchids due to over-collection. Likewise, the Department of Plant Resource has raised concerns over the disappearance of orchids from their natural habitat due to the extensive collection.

These important publications have urged the government and concerned authorities to implement conservation management plans, but there is still little evidence that these pledges have resulted in action. For instance, even Nepal’s fifth National Report to CBD failed to mention it.

Nepal is making huge efforts to reduce the illegal trade in endangered animals. It is time to also take plant trade and conservation seriously. This should be reflected not only on paper but in our national conservation actions, government’s participation in international fora, such as the United Nations (UN) biodiversity conference which is held currently from 13 to 29 November. Also, orchid conservation should be underscored in the forthcoming “Plant Inventory”. It should also be reflected in our research agendas, which have often overlooked plants and orchids, so that we have limited knowledge on exactly which species are harvested and traded, and in what amounts.

Nepal has a leading role to play in this, given our unique botanical diversity, including our amazing orchids of huge importance to our environment, culture and traditional medicine. They merit our attention and are worth featuring in the stories we tell our children.

-The author is  Nepal Conservation Research Fellow at Greenhood Nepal

(It was originally published by The Kathmandu Post).

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