Uncovering Nepal’s trade in wild orchids

Composite image of orchids flowering in their habitat or in a bag having been collected from the wild © S. Paudel (centre) and R. Bashyal (left; right)
Three orchids. Pholidota sp., commonly known as the Rattlesnake Orchid, is a medicinal orchid used by local shaman and also collected to feed livestock (left); Gastrochilus calceolaris, a Critically Endangered species, is illegally harvested from the wild for the ornamental plant trade (centre); and Epiphytic orchids growing in the wild in Nepal (right)

A new project by Lancaster University and young Nepalese conservationists, aims to reveal the extent of the country’s illegal orchid trade and explore options for creating a sustainable alternative.

Orchids are one of the most diverse plant families in the world, and there is a thriving illegal trade in wild orchids globally, which are harvested for medicines, foods, cosmetics and as ornamental plants.

Nepal has more than 450 orchid species, with nearly 100 traded illegally, mostly for use in traditional medicines, ranging from pain relief to aphrodisiacs.

According to Dr Jacob Phelps, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, "We have enough anecdotal information about this trade to know that it’s a major conservation issue. Many orchids are naturally rare and are very sensitive to over harvesting. However, there are few official records of this trade: We don’t know its extent, which species are most affected, or who is doing the trading. Until we know that, we can’t propose a conservation response. Currently, we are batting blind."

Jacob has teamed up with Greenhood Nepal, an NGO started by young conservationists, and with Oxford and Hawaii Universities, and the IUCN Orchid Specialist Group-Global Trade Programme on aground-breaking project that will plug this gap in our knowledge. They recently won a grant from the UK Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund - the first time this funding has been given to a project involving plants.

"Work on wildlife trade has traditionally focussed on large charismatic animals, ignoring the trade in plants. We are actively lobbying politicians, donors and NGOs about the importance of plants, trying to overcome this plant blindness," says Jacob, principal investigator on the study.

Plant blindness is a major challenge to conservation in Nepal, says Reshu Bashyal from Greenhood Nepal, who came up with the original idea for the project.

"In Nepal people understand the importance of rhinos and elephants, but it can be very hard to convince them that you are working in conservation if you are working with plants," says Reshu, who inherited her passion for plants from her grandfather, who used medicinal plants to treat people in his community.

"I have long wanted to work with orchids but up until now haven’t had the chance. It is a great opportunity for Greenhood Nepal to work on this project with our international partners."

Reshu, who is currently on a Chevening Scholarship studying for a Masters in Conservation and the International Wildlife Trade at the University of Kent, became interested in her country’s wild orchid trade when doing field work for an earlier degree.

"I saw people collecting wild orchids to feed to livestock and met local plant harvesters and researchers. I realised that orchids are traded in huge amounts, but very little of this trade is documented or recognised."

Reshu wrote a blog about the illegal trade, and discussed her ideas with Kumar Paudel, one of the founders and director of Greenhood, who is also leading on the project. Kumar introduced her to Jacob and Dr Amy Hinsley, who are Co-Chairs of the Orchid Specialist Group’s Global Trade Programme: they helped to take up Reshu’s idea and seek funding.

The project, called ‘Illegal trade & sustainable use of medicinal orchids in Nepal’, has three aims. Firstly, it will collect baseline data on which species are being most targeted for trade and for what purposes, along with information about trade networks and the people involved in collecting wild orchids.

The researchers will look at trade records and confiscation reports, interview harvesters and traders, and talk with experts to understand the illegal trade. They will then produce a policy brief for enforcement and conservation agencies in Nepal, highlighting the species at risk and encouraging better enforcement of large-scale commercial trade.

The second part of the project will explore options for a legal, sustainable wild orchid trade in Nepal, where orchid harvesting often supports poor, rural, indigenous communities. The researchers will trial an approach in which plant harvesters—who have an interest in the sustainability and legality of their livelihoods—will be trained to help monitor their local plant populations. This will contribute valuable data to help inform whether, and how, trade could be made more sustainable. This work involves a collaboration with Professor Tamara Ticktin, from the University of Hawaii, who has conducted extensive research on orchid harvest in Mexico.

"I know of no country that has attempted to introduce a monitoring scheme for the harvest of wild orchid plants," said Jacob. "We want to move from an unregulated illegal wild orchid trade to a sustainable regulated one and use this example as a way to get that conversation started internationally."

Finally, they will use the results to push for proper monitoring and enforcement of the international orchid trade, and to encourage the development of more sustainable orchid trade in other countries.

Once Reshu has finished her masters, she will return to Nepal to carry out field work on the two-year project. She will also receive support through the Nepal Conservation Research Fellowship, created jointly by Lancaster University and Greehhood Nepal to provide mentorship for ‘the brightest and the best’ early-career conservationists in Nepal.

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