‘Orchidelirium’: How a modern day flower madness fuels the illegal trade | Illegal wildlife trade
John Deer is running a particular operation. As Kew Gardens’ security officer, his job is to protect the 1.8 million people who visit each year. It is also his job to ensure that plants and cuttings do not disappear from the botanical collection while the public is on the royal estate. To do this, members of one of the UK’s oldest police forces patrol the grounds and officers keep watch from a state-of-the-art control room.
âPeople climbed over the perimeter walls to access the gardens. That’s why we have 24 hour security, âsays Deer, noting that there is always an occasional breach. “But orchids, I would say, are more protected.”
Orchids from all over the world are studied at Kew and many need special protection. Ivory and rhino horn dominate popular perception of wildlife crime, but the colonial-era enthusiasm of the wealthy Victorians for orchids, known as “orchidelirium”, has taken on a new lease of life. forms today, with social media at the center of a thriving illicit global market that threatens the survival of some species. At the heart of the modern obsession are âorchid influencersâ complemented by live feeds and âunboxing videosâ.
Security personnel in Kew Gardens no longer wear handcuffs and batons, or police uniforms, but just like Pensioners from the Crimean War who kept guard at the gardens in the 19th century, the Deer team must be on the lookout.
Orchid thieves can strike at any time. Earlier this month green winged orchids were stolen from a meadow near Rugby (Warwickshire Police investigate). Across the Atlantic in the Cayman Islands, two chocolate orchids were stolen from Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park in May. They were recovering from the theft of a cutting the previous year.
“Particularly rare orchids [at Kew] are locked behind glass cabinets so people can’t get them, âsays Deer, explaining that some of the rarest and most endangered species are completely hidden from visitors. âWe are trying to protect the species. Often the best growing conditions are in the back of the house. With that, we have to make sure that they also have the right security. “
Orchids are one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants: there are about 28,000 species known to science, and they make up about 8% of all flowering plants. They are found on all continents except Antarctica, and survive at high altitudes and in tropical and semi-desert conditions.
Previously, I had visited the Princess of Wales Conservatory with Mike Fay, Senior Research Director for Conservation Genetics at Kew. He also co-chairs the Orchid Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a global network of experts working to protect them.
Inside the greenhouse, each room transports you to a different ecosystem, with humidity, temperature and ventilation calibrated to support the plants. While Fay wipes the condensation off his glasses, we inspect the orchids. Some are delicate epiphytes: orchids hanging from specially constructed fake trees, absorbing moisture and nutrients from the air, displaying brightly colored flowers. Others are the size of shrubs, producing a handful of large flowers that only last a day.
Fay revels in the variety of orchids, detailing the complicated relationship between plants and insects, the bats and hummingbirds that pollinate them, and the fungi that orchids rely on to successfully reproduce. Many pollinators “trick” by masquerading as other flowers or releasing female insect pheromone scents for unsuspecting males to fertilize. In addition to being prized for their beauty, some orchids are considered a delicacy: vanilla is an orchid, just like that used in salep, a popular drink in Turkey.
So what is it about orchids that people love so much? âI think it’s kind of a perversity,â Fay said. âThey don’t have a normal lifestyle. They engage in weird pollination, they must have a relationship with a fungus for the seeds to even germinate, they have weird and wonderful flowers that are incredibly variable. Some are difficult to maintain, so this is one way to show that you are a good horticulturist.
While rumors of isolated wild orchids selling for several thousand pounds are common, the true extent of the illegal trade is unknown. Experts say they can’t make informed guesses due to lack of reliable information, but report a flourishing legal trade. More than 1.1 billion live orchid plants were legally traded internationally from 1996 to 2015, according to a review article from 2018. The EU exported or re-exported around â¬ 200 million (# 170 million) of orchids and cacti in 2018, according to the UN.
It is illegal to trade wild orchids internationally without a permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and for some, trade in wild-collected specimens is completely not allowed. Despite this, orchid trafficking is rampant, with many flowers being sold openly on social media around the world. In some cases, new species of orchids are harvested by traffickers even before they are known to science.
âThere is a lot of illegal international trade in orchids,â says Fay. âIf a new species is described, the exact location is often blurred. There are documented cases of new slipper orchids having been discovered in Southeast Asia in recent years. And, before it has even been officially described, populations have been taken from nature and it is effectively extinct in the wild.
In the UK, the slipper orchid almost met the same fate. It was declared extinct in England in 1917 after collectors of orchids and dried flowers pushed it over the edge. But in 1930, it was rediscovered by chance and is today the subject of intense reintroduction efforts by Natural england, its wild site is a well-kept secret.
âOne of Kew’s activities for 30 years has been the development of a propagation program. We arranged for the native lady’s slipper flowers to be hand pollinated. We have produced seeds and these are germinated in Kew. We now have over a dozen reintroduction sites, âexplains Fay.
âIt comes with risks. There are still some who want to go in, take them out and dig them up.
âIt’s about having more plants in your storage that you don’t tell people about,â he adds.
As our tour of the conservatory draws to a close, Fay implores me not to repeat the myth that a policeman sleeps in a tent keeping the lady’s slipper on while she’s in bloom no matter how much I wish. let this be true. But a guardian watches over the flower, and there is no sign that this caution will end soon.