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Illegal Trade Reveals Unknown Orchids

Ornamental orchids and Huperzia sp. for sale at a market.

Ornamental orchids and Huperzia sp. for sale at a market.

 

You might not expect to discover new plants at your local city market, but scientists recently documented new orchid species found for sale at a market in downtown Bangkok.

Commercial trade of wild-collected plants is restricted in most countries. Orchids, in particular, are often subject to intensive harvesting as medicinal and ornamental plants, even though the international trade in wild orchids is heavily regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Nevertheless, weak enforcement means that illegal trade in wild orchids, and in many other protected species, remains rampant.

Jacob Phelps, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research, has been compiling species lists from the largest wild plant markets in Thailand. “Continental Southeast Asia is home to roughly 2,000 orchid species. Throughout our market surveys, we found many of the most common ones,” says Phelps, “but also a startling number of rare and endemic species. Illegal trade is probably a very serious threat to the conservation of these species. I also encountered some species that I simply could not identify.” 

It turned out that these included several species new to science. Researchers Jaap J. Vermeulen, Pathana Thavipoke and Jacob Phelps recently described two new market-based discoveries, as they are called, as Bulbophyllum anodon and Bulbophyllum dasystachys in the journal Phytotaxa.

This was not the first time new species had been discovered via illegal trade. Phelps explains that an alarming number of new Southeast Asian orchid species discovered in the last decade first came to scientific attention this way. Researchers are not always transparent about their sources.

In their paper, Vermeulen, Thavipoke and Phelps warn of the significant risks associated with describing new species found in illegal trade. Notably, there are numerous examples of increased harvesting and inflated prices following the description of new plants. For example, when the attractive Bulbophyllum kubahense was described in 2011, the species quickly caught the attention of collectors, and prices for a single specimen increased tenfold. When the extremely rare earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) was rediscovered in Borneo in 2008, the disclosure of its approximate location in a scientific journal helped lead illegal collectors to a source for their trade.

Dendrobium spp. orchids wild-collected in Myanmar, Thailand and Lao People's Democratic Republic, for sale at a popular border market between southern Thailand and Myanmar.

Dendrobium spp. orchids wild-collected in Myanmar, Thailand and Lao People's Democratic Republic, for sale at a popular border market between southern Thailand and Myanmar.

It is with some relief that the authors describe the two new Bulbophyllum species as relatively uncharismatic. They express the hope that the small, unremarkable flowers will deter most would-be collectors, but acknowledge that some fringe collectors are motivated by novelty rather than aesthetics. The authors highlight that illegal trade networks are already exploiting these species, and call for increased enforcement and strategies to better conserve botanical diversity, including that of newly described species.

The discovery of a new species is always an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, simply by drawing public attention to these species, scientists may be putting some of them in danger. As online forums offer increasingly easy access to illegal wildlife products, the quandary faced by scientists grows ever greater.

Dendrobium spp. orchids wild-collected in Myanmar, Thailand and Lao People's Democratic Republic, for sale at a popular border market between southern Thailand and Myanmar.

All images are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of Jacob Phelps.  

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