Rooting for the orchids

Reshu Bashyal

Did you know orchids are the most traded type of wildlife in the world? And that they cover more than 70 percent 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 was unaware of 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 for more memorable stories. We never thought to include plants in the ‘wildlife’ category. 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. This phenomenon has been described as ‘plant blindness.’

Often called ‘pandas of the world’, orchids are incredibly diverse; there are more than 30,000 species across the world.  Dozens of new species continue to be 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. Nepal alone hosts 437 known species of orchids, due to a wide variety of topographic and climatic conditions.

Orchids hold significant economic importance, particularly in horticulture and floristry. Most of this trade involves sustainable and legal plants grown in greenhouses. According to The United Nations Environmental Protection Agency, more than 1.1 billion live orchid plants have been traded internationally over the past 20 years. However, a large illegal trade in wild protected orchids persists within this figure. This includes ornamental plants, as well as many species that are used for medical purposes 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) published a report that explored the conservation 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 that are 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 overtime, but we hear few stories about it. For instance, in 1985, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew reported that more than 100 trucks of wild, illegally collected, and traded orchids were transported to India for  Ayurvedic products. Likewise, another report (published in 2002) on Nepalese Orchid Species reported that around 5 tons of orchid tubers (of the species Orchislatifolia) were harvested annually for export, at an approximate value of $ 900 per ton. We also know that there is a significant trade within Nepal for domestic use, although we have few tangible and reported examples. There is a high possibility of other similar incidents that 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.

To some extent, Orchids are protected 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. It also requires export permits from International traders, 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, Dactylorhizahatagirea, 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 understanding of government rules and regulations.  In addition, many people do not exclude plants, including orchids, from their conservation priorities.

Despite these limitations, the Government of Nepal has made some praiseworthy accomplishments with regard to orchid conservation. 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 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 any progress on the previous year’s report. Nepal is making huge strides in curbing the illegal trade of endangered animals from the country. It is time to also take plant trade and conservation seriously.  This should be reflected not only on paper but in our national actions related to conservation. The government must also consider its participation in global discussions related to the topic, such as the United Nations (UN) biodiversity conference to be held this November. In addition to incorporating Nepal in global discussions, orchid conservation should also be underscored in the forthcoming ‘Plant Inventory’. Furthermore, it needs to be reflected in our research agendas, which have often overlooked plants and orchids. This way, the public can become more aware of which species are harvested and traded, and in what amounts.

Nepal has a leading role to play in the global conservation of orchids, especially, given our unique botanical diversity. Orchids hold profound importance to our environment, culture, and traditional medicine and it is important to reciprocate the benefits they provide us by ensuring their survival for future generations. They merit our attention and are worth featuring in the stories we tell our children.

Reshu Bashyal holds an MSc in Environmental Science and is affiliated with Greenhood Nepal.

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