Traditional Chinese medicine demand fuels illegal orchid trade in Nepal

According to a policy brief prepared by the Kathmandu-based NGO Greenhood Nepal, which is spearheading a project focused on illegal trade and sustainable use of medicinal orchids in Nepal, the decline in their numbers has been attributed to unsustainable harvesting and international trade of the plants used in ayurvedic as well as traditional Chinese medicine.

Abhaya Raj Joshi Dec 29, 2022
Nepal orchids

Thousands of pilgrims from Nepal and India visit a garden in Siraha in eastern Nepal on the first day of the Nepali New Year (around the second week of April) to catch a glimpse of a special flower.

According to folklore, the pale purple flowers, which bloom hanging from trees in the garden known as the Salahesh Fulbari, represent a garland that local folk hero Salahesh received from his beloved. Botanists have identified the flower as an orchid species (Dendrobium aphyllum) found from Nepal to Southern China and peninsular Malaysia.

Although the orchid species in Siraha grabs headlines in Nepal and parts of India every April, other members of this family (Orchidaceae) of this diverse flowering plants with colorful and fragrant blooms are often neglected, even as their trade remains illegal in the country.

“Orchids are the most exciting, diverse, unique and charismatic of all plant groups on Earth,” says Jacob Phelps, co-chair of the Global Trade Program, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Orchid Specialist Group. “They are the tigers of the plant world, but unlike tigers, we know incredibly little about them,” he adds.

Scientific estimates suggest that there are roughly 30,000 species of orchids around the world, approximately 500 of which have been reported in the forests and fields of Nepal. Most orchid plants require tree limbs for support and don’t need soil to grow — hence the garland-like appearance.

“We know from anecdotes from Nepal and elsewhere that the number of orchid species is declining at an alarming rate,” says Phelps.

Decline in orchid numbers

According to a policy brief prepared by the Kathmandu-based NGO Greenhood Nepal, which is spearheading a project focused on illegal trade and sustainable use of medicinal orchids in Nepal, the decline in their numbers has been attributed to unsustainable harvesting and international trade of the plants used in Ayurvedic as well as traditional Chinese medicine.

One of the orchid species found in Nepal, Paphiopedilum venustum, has been listed as “endangered” by IUCN and listed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), permitting trade only in exceptional circumstances. Almost all others are listed under Appendix 2, meaning that their trade must be controlled in order to ensure utilization is compatible with their survival. But as Nepal has yet to prepare its national species management plans, trade in orchids is illegal, despite the CITES provisions.

“At the crux of the problem with the orchid trade is that only the traders – not government officials, local people or even botanists – know the true value of these plants,” says botanist Kamal Maden. Traders, especially those with knowledge of the neighboring Chinese traditional medicine market, know how much money a stem, root, flower or bulb of each species of orchid can fetch in the domestic as well as international markets, he adds.

But most of them don’t care about sustainable collection so long as they can earn money from it, he says. Traders often deploy villagers to collect orchids from forests in rural areas and pay them only a fraction of the market price. But for the villagers, the amount of money they get is at times enough to meet their needs for a year, says Maden. The collectors are known to use “destructive methods” such as digging up the entire plant to remove its tubers.

Data discrepancies

This is especially worrying as orchids have a special mechanism for reproduction, says Maden. They can’t be grown from their seeds like other plants. Although each orchid pod or capsule contains thousands of seeds, they can’t germinate on their own as they don’t contain food required during the germination period. As special fungal species are required to provide food for the seeds during germination, they do not propagate quite readily.

According to Reshu Bashyal, who leads the project on illegal trade and sustainable use of medicinal orchids, traders have been found to have exported orchids in various forms such as powders, dried petals and even tubers. However, they don’t fully disclose to the customs authorities the contents of their cargo.

This is also corroborated by discrepancies in data on the orchid trade obtained from Nepal’s government and the Chinese government. According to the project, Chinese government sources say 36,187 kilograms (79,779 pounds) of orchids were imported from Nepal between 2008 and 2016. But the same figure from Nepal’s government stands at only 1,897 kg (4,182 lb) during the same period.

“We have also seen evidence that orchids are traded under other names and disguised as other plants that don’t have legal cover,” says Bashyal. For instance, the orchid Pleione praecox is harvested and traded under the name “pani amala,” which refers to a common fern species known as the Himalayan gooseberry.

Tip of iceberg

Despite all these ploys used in illegal trade, officials sometimes seize orchid parts prepared for illegal trade. Even as they represent the tip of an iceberg, the quantities involved are at times jaw-dropping, researchers say. For example, officials seized around 75 kg (165 lb) of dried Dactylorhiza hatagirea from Gorkha in western Nepal with an estimated market value of $166,280 (NPR 22.07 mln).

Bashyal says it is high time the government takes proactive measures to control the illegal trade of orchids in Nepal. Bashyal and her team members, who have worked on the project for three years, identify six key steps the government needs to take.

Officials in different levels of government need to be aware of Nepal’s laws on orchid harvest and trade, recognize that some plants in the country also fall into the category of protected wildlife, identify key species that need to be protected immediately, watch for deliberate misidentification by traders, document and report seizures and engage orchid scientists to help prepare and implement management plans.

Devesh Mani Tripathi, director general at the Department of Forests, says the findings of the illegal trade and sustainable use project have been an eye-opener for his department. “Although we won’t be able to introduce prescribed policies right away, we will certainly take note of the recommendations,” he adds.

(By special arrangement with Mongobay)

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