A Review of C.I.T.E.S. and Its Effects on Orchid Growers

- by Carson E. Whitlow*

Restrictive laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are not going to be the solution to the problem of extinction of plants and animals, and anyone that thinks so is naive. Nor do they stimulate any research. The solution to a major part of the problem, in respect to orchids, is relatively simple. It would not require any laws and would probably be less expensive that what CITES is costing now and in the future. It has far reaching effects which are not just applicable to orchids. It offers rewards for those involved and could increase their awareness and appreciation for their countries natural resources. Funding in part, if not totally, could come from current conservation oriented organizations with considerable secondary benefit to them.

The problem is not the general destructive removal of orchids from the wild and their being exported to other countries. The problem, as the CITES people appear to see it, is that certain horticulturally desirable orchid species are being stripped from the wild in certain parts of the world, and some if not most exported to other countries. This is a very important distinction, and it focuses our efforts. We don't have to consider all species of orchids, nor place restrictions on all countries.

With the solutions I propose we can select and target those species which are most in danger of over-exploitation as a starting point. Overlap with other species in the same area will reduce efforts necessary for these other species of concern. The solution is positive and relatively simple, it increases productivity and has long lasting impact on the problem.

One of the reasons for collecting wild plants is because they are cheaper than raising them from seed. Another is that there may be genetic differences which are not present in current collected material. From the natives' point of view it is a means of supplementing his meager earnings and the material is free. Considering the value of some species a native may get a years income equivalent by finding a rare plant. For the purchaser, imported plants are usually the least expensive, there is always a chance of something superior or different, and if you lose a few there is not a major financial loss.

The approach taken to solving the problem has two main thrusts: supplementing wild collected plants and education and reward at the collector/gatherer level. Supplementing wild collected material with artificially produced material is of course what CITES and many of the biologists desire in the first place, but they are trying to force it on others. As mentioned, a conservation oriented organization would be the best source to provide funds for collecting seed from several wild populations (or those established under cultivation) or the selected species, and planting and growing a quantity of seedlings far in excess of what is needed. The plants could be offered in quantities at prices well below those for wild collected imports (most likely at loss). They would have the genetic variability found in the wild, yet be strong cultivated material free of insects and disease. This would reduce, temporarily, the demand for wild collected plants and reduce prices all around. The impact would be immediate and would be great public relations for the supporting organization. Public support with even small donations could be garnered easily since they would tie directly to plants being saved from removal from the wild, whereas other efforts require large amounts of money which the individual can't really feel they have an impact on.

The second part of the solution would now come into play, that of education and reward for the collector/gatherer. Throughout the natural range of the selected species, educational meetings would be held to educate the collectors on the species, its habits and needs, its cultivation. Methods of collecting and efficient collecting techniques would be presented. Selective harvesting, harvesting with replenishment is mind, most desirous harvesting time, enhancing reproduction and reestablishment of material would all be part of the presentation. In addition, free plant material of the species of concern would be provided to the collectors for cultivation and reestablishment in the wild, thus improving their potential income after the artificial overabundance disappears.

(As an aside, I have found that many biologists in this country do not want material to supplement existing populations if the supplemental material was collected or derived from seed from populations more than a few miles away. In fact, some of these same biologists do not want to reestablish a species which historically occurred in an area, because it would require the introduction of "foreign" material.)

The effect of gross overproduction is self-evident. Certainly, no commercial concern would want to do it and end up out of business. However, if only a few species at a time were overproduced, it would not have a major effect on the commercial producer or market overall. It would certainly give naturally occurring populations an opportunity to seed and initiate repopulating of its area, if the habitat hasn't been destroyed.

As for the education aspect, the drop in price of the plants may have an impact on the collector/gatherer, but it wouldn't be identified with a government, nor a forced attempt to change behavior. Providing knowledge and material for their future income, the understanding of how important their natural resources are and how they may be carried on indefinitely, will build respect for their environment. Thus, if it is necessary to return later to the area for additional species of concern, a considerable amount of work is already done. This, then, becomes the long range solution, with populations maintained and carefully harvested.

This approach does not require any restrictions under CITES. By approaching the species in most danger, and accepting the losses in others or allowing the governments in the respective countries to handle it, the process can begin. Certainly, in some countries this won't work and alternative approaches may be necessary. however, it is far superior to any other alternative. It is very workable and has far reaching impact and doesn't force one's beliefs on others. In addition, it has an impact on the greatest problem facing all plants and animals, destruction of habitat, by developing an awareness and appreciation for the country's natural resources.

This process is really a melding of conservation and commercialization. The two can exist and build together. Both will have to give some ground, but the outcomes are permanently self-maintaining populations and continuous supplies of wild collected material without endangering the survival of the species in the wild - at least as long as the "wild" survives. Isn't that what CITES, in part, is attempting to do?

*Excerpted from the Orchid Digest, Volume 55, Number 4, Oct.-Nov.- Dec., 1991, Pages 158-160.
Carson E. Whitlow
22957 - 280th Street
Adel, IA 50003-4491

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