Saving the treasure trove of Nepal’s orchids

Kamal Maden
April 18, 2021

Someone tell the Nepal government about the importance of orchids

Nepal’s unique topographical and ecological diversity gives the country a range of orchids found in a very few places on the planet.

Many of them have medicinal qualities and economic value, but the absence of regulation and enforcement of existing laws have led to the over-extraction of some of the rarest and most valuable types of orchids.

Orchids are epiphytes, which means they use tree limbs for support, and do not need the soil to grow, dangling their roots to gather moisture from the air. There can also be terrestrial and lithophytic orchids that use rocks for support. The climatic conditions that make Nepal ideal for orchids are also what make the country a haven for orchid smugglers.

There are some 44 genera and 507 species of orchids found in the cloud forests of Nepal’s Himalayan foothills—nearly 100 of them with proven medicinal value.

Every year Nepal exports 10,000 tonnes of medicinal plants to 50 countries, among them are 24 species of orchids and 12 are of the Dendrobium variety which are said to have the chemicals needed to make drugs to treat various types of cancer.

In fact, the first time Dendrobium aphyllum and Dendrobium crisantham and three other species were identified was by Danish surgeon and botanist Nathaniel Wallich in 1830 when he visited Nepal while heading the Royal Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

There are some 30 species under the Dendrobium genus, and 12 of them are found in Nepal. Many of these are legally exported to various countries around the world. However, there are reports of widespread plunder of orchids from Himalayan forests by smugglers.

An estimated 800 tonnes of orchids is said to be smuggled into India every year from eastern Nepal alone. Meanwhile, there is a thriving underground trade in Dactylorhiza hatagirea (पाँच औंले) to China even though it is a protected species in Nepal.

Nepal is party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which has categorised endangered species and plants into three appendices on the basis of conservation. The orchid Paphiopedilum venustum is included in Appendix 1 because it is on the verge of extinction.

There are 128 species of orchids in Appendix 2, among which there are 29 belonging to the genus Dendrobium. Orchids in this list are endangered, but not near extinction, and their export is allowed under certain conditions.

The ‘Lady Slipper’ orchid named Paphiopedilum venustum is included in the CITES Appendix 1. This species is in very much demand because of its delicate beauty, which is why it has been extracted almost to extinction.

Also among the orchids of Nepal listed in the Critically Endangered category is Gastrochilus calceolaris which is popular in homes, hotels and office, but is absent from the government’s Checklist of CITES Listed Flora of Nepal. In addition, a dozen or so orchids that fall under the IUCN red list which are endangered or critically endangered, are not yet in the list either.

Likewise, Gastrodia elata which is much in demand for its medicinal properties in the treatment of cancer, gastritis, and bacterial infections is listed in Appendix 2 of CITES and is critically endangered in Nepal. This points to regulation failure in which export licenses have been given for critically endangered species.

A workshop on 30 March by the non-profit Greenhood Nepal discussed the challenges for Nepal to protect its remaining orchid diversity. It emphasized greater awareness among officials and locals about orchids in the critically endangered list.

Even employees of the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation have no idea how to identify different species of orchids, the workshop was told. Since only the stems or roots of orchids are sold, it is even more difficult to tell if they belong to a protected species. The exception is the Dactylorhiza hatagirea which is easily identified because of its five finger-like appendages.

The government has formulated laws to regulate the trade of critically endangered plants, but documents do not identify those on the list. This has made it easier to legally export banned species, and to smuggle them as well.

The author of this blog is affliated with Greenhood Nepal and this was originally published in the Nepali Times.

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