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The role of CITES in orchid conservation.

Scientists have traced orchids as far back as 120 million years. These plants first received recognition in the herbal writings of Japan and China 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Once the province of rulers and other powerful officials, orchids are now widely available. The elegant, often brilliantly colored plants grace restaurant tables, offices, homes, and department stores. During the past 10 to 15 years, orchids have achieved unprecedented commercial popularity. They have been the subject of popular books (The Orchid Thief, Orchid Fever) and a movie (Adaptation). In the United States alone, the orchid business exceeds $100 million annually, according to a USDA Floriculture Crops Report.

There are over 20,000 species in the family Orchidaceae, within about 900 genera. The actual number is unknown and the subject of debate, with new species still being discovered. The entire orchid family has been included in the CITES Appendices since the treaty entered into force in 1975. Several species were included in Appendix I because they were over-collected from the wild for horticulture. In 1989, all species in the genera Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium, the tropical slipper orchids, were transferred to Appendix I because of the high rate of endemism (occurring within a small area) within each genus, the rarity of some species, the similarity of appearance among many species, and their popularity in trade. The vast majority of orchids were included in Appendix II because they resemble other species of conservation concern.

Import and export data indicate that 20 to 25 million or more orchid plants are traded each year worldwide. The overwhelming majority, 95 percent or more, are Appendix-II artificially propagated species and their hybrids, comprising several popular genera. Given these statistics, one might wonder why CITES still protects artificially propagated plants.

When not in flower, some orchids can be indistinguishable from each other, even to a professional. This similarity of appearance facilitates the poaching and subsequent commercial use of wild orchids. For example, tropical slipper orchids have been the subject of intense collection pressure. The recent discovery of a new Phragmipedium species in Peru provides an example. Once news of this magnificently huge-blossomed orchid broke, every plant in the original population was eliminated from its wild environment within a matter of days as collectors ravaged the hillsides where it was found. Orchids continue to be listed under CITES to discourage the poaching of wild plants and to limit opportunities for wild specimens to slip into commercial trade.

For Appendix-II orchids, the CITES Parties decided that trade in certain parts and products is not detrimental to the survival of the species. They agreed to exempt the following from CITES permitting requirements: seeds; pollinia (the encapsulated pollen of orchids); tissue cultures and flasked seedlings; cut flowers of artificially propagated plants; and, for Vanilla species, fruits, parts, and derivatives from artificially propagated plants. Generally, trade in any parts or derivatives of Appendix-I orchids requires a permit, although the CITES Party countries have agreed to exempt flasked seedlings in sterile culture if they meet the CITES definition of artificially propagated plants.

The CITES Plants Committee, which provides technical and scientific support to the Parties, recently reviewed the listing of orchid species to see if it was possible to deregulate certain plants without adversely affecting those that need protection. The goal of this review was to reduce the burden on permit-issuing agencies, border inspection officials, and the regulated public. CITES countries also sought an alternative approach that could focus conservation attention on those species that are removed from the wild each year for international trade.

A comprehensive review of the orchid trade, based on 1995-1999 data, revealed that most of the trade involved 40 genera, which are traded in the thousands. Of the other orchid genera, 326 had never been recorded in trade; 201 had only been traded for scientific purposes; and, for 105, fewer than 50 specimens had been recorded. This analysis suggested that more than half of the known genera of orchids might conceivably be removed from CITES controls.

The Plants Committee concluded, however, that all orchids should remain listed due to the enormity of the orchid family, the difficulty of distinguishing different genera based on vegetative characteristics alone (orchids generally are not traded while flowering), and the confusion that could result from extensive compilations of genera listed and unlisted under CITES. As a consequence, the Plants Committee considered whether some other approach to deregulation might be possible.

In 2001, the Plants Committee asked the U.S. to work with the American Orchid Society to develop a proposal for exempting artificially propagated hybrids of six popular orchid genera--Cattleya, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Oncidium, Phalaenopsis, and Vanda--from CITES permitting requirements. The rationale for such a proposal was that these genera are traded in high volumes, mostly as hybrids that are generally highly uniform in size and overall appearance. This facilitates their identification as artificially propagated specimens. At their 2002 meeting in Santiago, Chile, the CITES Parties agreed to exempt only artificially propagated Phalaenopsis hybrids as a test case to see if such an approach would be workable. At their most recent meeting, in Bangkok in 2004, the Parties agreed to exempt the artificially propagated hybrids of four Southeast Asian genera: Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, and Vanda.

While CITES countries continue to consider whether to deregulate elements of the orchid trade involving little or no conservation risk, it remains a challenge to protect species vulnerable to over-exploitation by the international market. As orchids become increasingly popular, CITES countries continue to work to ensure the protection of wild populations.

Roddy Gabel (roddy_gabel@fws. gov) is Chief of the Division of Scientific Authority in the Service's International Affairs Program in Arlington, Virginia.
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Title Annotation:Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
Author:Gabel, Roddy
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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