This is the story of a single plant of Paphiopedilum insigne, a ladyslipper orchid. To identify it as a single specific plant, we will call it by the clone name of 'Jones.' It has been living quietly and privately in the jungles of India since who knows when. This plant had sprouted and grown from a seed, one of hundreds of thousands that were produced from a single seedpod. It had matured a few years later and now produces flowers and seed pods itself to perpetuate the species. The wild location where the orchid happened to grow was fertile, and over the years it grew into a lovely clump. One day, a man came by and seeing its lovely flowers decided to dig a piece of it and take it home. Fortunately for the plant, the removal of the piece did not do it irreparable damage, so it soon had replaced that which had been removed. Later, other men came by and each in turn took a piece of the plant, which likewise grew back in time. This harvesting of a piece of the plant continues to this day, and the plant continues to thrive.
Ah, but what of these little pieces of the plant that were removed? How did they fair when taken from their native land? Remember, all of these little pieces are identical genetically. All are of the one clone. Of those pieces removed prior to when a treaty called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) came about, some were shipped to other countries, some were grown on and artificially propagated (in a manner defined later as such by CITES regulations). Some of those shipped to other countries were done so legally, and some were smuggled into other countries. Some of the artificially propagated pieces also were shipped to other countries legally or smuggled into them. In their new homes, they produced even more pieces. In today's world, they all are considered 'legal', whether they got there legally or were smuggled. After CITES came into effect, all orchid species were classified as "Appendix II" or "Threatened." Those pieces of 'Jones' collected prior to CITES coming into effect and/or artificially propagated were shipped out legally as "Pre-CITES", while others were smuggled out.
Even when the CITES regulations categorized the species as "Appendix I" or "Endangered," the pieces collected prior to CITES and/or artificially propagated were shipped out legally as "Pre-CITES," and again others were smuggled out. For those pieces collected during the period when they were classified as "Appendix II" or "Threatened," some were shipped out of the country legally as "wild-collected," while others were smuggled out. Some of the grown on and artificially propagated plants were shipped out legally as "artificially propagated," while others were smuggled out. Even when the CITES regulations categorized the species as "Appendix I" or "Endangered," the pieces artificially propagated were shipped out legally as "artificially propagated," while others were smuggled out. For those pieces collected when the CITES regulations categorized them as "Appendix I" or "Endangered," the pieces were smuggled out, since they could not be sent out legally. Even those pieces that were collected and later became "artificially propagated" had to have lots of documentation before they could be legally shipped out of the country, while others were smuggled out. After CITES came into effect, pieces of our original plant, which is still growing in its original site, were classified as "legal" or "illegal" depending on when and how they came to a foreign country. Those smuggled into other countries were, of course, classified as "illegal." Thus, it is possible to have both "legal" and "illegal" pieces of Paphiopedilum insigne 'Jones' in the same collection. How does one tell the legal from the illegal? Since literally no documentation exists to support the legality of the original imports, and they are all identical genetically, THERE IS NO WAY TO TELL WHICH IS OR IS NOT "LEGAL!"
That, however, is not the end of the story. There is a plant named Paphiopedilum spicerianum, and it has the clone name of 'Smith.' This specific plant is "legal" by definition. Now some orchid fancier decided to make a hybrid between this species and Paphiopedilum insigne 'Jones.' The resultant progeny are all called Paphiopedilum Leeanum, no matter whether they are made by the Jones-Smith clones or other clones of the same two species, or whether Paphiopedilum spicerianum is the mother or the father of the hybrid. Now, our orchid fancier has two pieces of Paphiopedilum insigne 'Jones,' one of which is "legal" and one that is not. He decides to use both pieces for the hybrid to make certain he gets the seed he wants. Our orchid fancier is successful in his hybridizing efforts and soon has two groups of seedlings of the same hybrid (called grex) of Paphiopedilum Leeanum coming along. Because one of the parents of one hybrid was an illegal piece of Paphiopedilum insigne 'Jones,' however, all of the seedlings resulting from the use of that piece of plant also are "illegal." How do you tell the two sets apart, and how do you determine which are "legal" and which are not? YOU CAN'T! If any of the "illegal" seedlings are used in further hybridizing, those seedlings also will be "illegal," and on and on and on. On top of that, numerous other orchid fanciers have made this same hybrid grex using different clones of the parents, some "legal" and some "illegal." How do you determine which are legal and which aren't? YOU CAN'T! Now I have used the example of one hypothetical plant through time to illustrate how absurd it is to expect amateurs or professionals to know when they have a plant that is or is not legal, let alone expect the government to keep track or be able to prove it. Likewise it is equally applicable to the entire species.
The application, however, does not stop there. Any hybrid of any orchid, if it is not imported legally, no matter how many of its brothers or sister are legally in a country, is an "illegal," and if it is used for hybridizing, the progeny are illegal. "Illegal" begets "illegal!" The consequences of having illegal plants are that the plants can be confiscated and the owner fined and imprisoned. How can the federal government determine if a plant is legal or not? THEY CAN'T, with a few exceptions. Any species that is legally within a country now cannot be distinguished from those plants that are illegal. Any newly discovered species of Appendix I plants can be distinguished only so long as none are legally imported into the country. Any newly discovered Appendix II plants can be distinguished only for the time it takes to raise them from seed, since seed of Appendix II plants is exempt from CITES. For wild collected plants, they can only be distinguished from the time they are imported until they have grown sufficiently to be able to remove and discard that portion of it that can be identified as coming from the wild.
What, then, do we have? We have a system that all but doesn't work and can't work. The government cannot keep up with all the species and hybrids legally imported and where they all go, let alone where and to whom they are distributed within the country. Plants grow, are divided and passed to others without any type of certification. Only recently has the federal government even issued copies of import documents with the plants when they come in, thus providing some proof that the plants were legally imported. How do people prove their orchids are legal? Basically, THEY CAN'T; but at the same time, the government can't prove otherwise. CITES has encouraged smuggling that evades the vital plant inspection system set up in the United States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect us from foreign organisms, which could infect our plants and animals. In addition, we have created a bureaucratic mess that not only costs taxpayers money; it costs both customers and dealers an inordinate amount of time and money to comply with ineffective, useless regulations and restrictions.
So what has CITES accomplished? What has it done for conservation? What are we getting for the millions of dollars spent and thousands of man-hours invested? The answer is NOTHING! Then why is it being continued? In the United States, that is a question every U.S. Representative and every U.S. Senator should be asked and held accountable for answering.
--Carson E. Whitlow