Save Nepal’s orchids

Himalayan orchids need urgent protection before they are smuggled to extinction


There are about 30,000 species of orchids found in the world, and of them 500 are found in Nepal.

There are different types of orchids: they are called epiphytes if they cling to trees, lithophytes if they grow on rocks, terrestrial if on the ground, and there are even saprophytes which are orchids found underground.

The unusually-shaped Foxtail (Rhynchostylis) grows on trees in the Nepal Himalaya, as do the highly-protected Pachaule (Dactylorhiza hatagirea) orchid known for its medicinal properties. The Himalayan Slipper (Cypripedium himalaicum) are collected for their shoe-shaped flowers.

Read also: Saving nature by protecting orchids, Reshu Bashyal and Jacob Phelps 

These and other 100 orchids are believed to have medicinal value in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Amchi traditional medicine to treat everything from pain relief to serving as aphrodisiacs.

Many are also harvested as ornamental plants and as fodder for livestock. Nepal has a long history of harvesting and trading wild orchids: supplying a significant amount of raw material to meet local and international demand both through legal and illegal channels.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists orchids as an endangered flora. In fact, among its listed species of plants and animals, around 70% are orchids, and apart from a couple species of Paphiopedilum, also known as Venus Slippers, all orchids are listed under Schedule 2.

Read also: Saving the treasure trove of Nepal's orchids, Kamal Maden

As Nepal is a signatory party to CITES, it is responsible for stopping the illicit trade, collection and export of these flowers. Nepal’s own CITES Act 2017, which follows the Convention, states that there must be necessary plans in place before the orchids listed can be harvested.

Yet, in practice plant conservation is neglected. Orchids have made it into legislation, but only on paper. All harvesting of orchids is illegal in Nepal. While attention is paid to identifying orchid habitats, detailed research into their trade and conservation is still lacking.

Our relationship with plants is often different from that with animals. Endangered species of animals, such as the tiger and rhino, are protected strictly by law, but the same commitment is not extended to plants.

In Nepal, flora connoisseurs consider orchids special for their kaleidoscopic colour patterns and shape. Beyond the aesthetics, many Nepalis consume orchid petals to alleviate stomach cramps, as tonic, and even against cancer, often without identifying the plant and its properties.

Read also: Between existence and extinction in Nepal, Sonia Awale

Noting serious concern about the sustainability and legality of commercial harvesting and the collapse of some populations, Nepal banned the harvest of Pachaule orchids as far back as 1993. Further regulations were introduced, through monitoring of quotas and revenue payments to control harvest and trade of other species of orchid and their bulbs.

Yet, smuggling continues. In 2017, 75kg of the highly prized Dactylorhiza hatagirea were apprehended in Gorkha. There have been over 35 seizures of wild orchids in the last decade, nearly half of them bound for China.

Yet, only a few are caught. And if they are, it is by chance in police spot-checking a truck or bus and finding wild plants in them. Further, harvesters have also been selling orchids under different names, for instance: Pleione orchid bulbs are often smuggled as Himalayan gooseberries.

The pressing challenge to orchids has been its illegal harvesting and trade, that too in huge amounts done especially without proper training. This has raised concerns regarding the conditions of harvesting and collecting as well.

In Nepal orchids are found in remote areas and present regulations look primarily at their types and shapes. Regulations that explore their trade are separate, few and are not readily available.

Besides smuggling, e-commerce and sales through social media sites has made it more difficult to control. A few months ago, we found the Dactylorhiza hatagirea being sold online at £394/kg.

In addition, it is also necessary to conduct regular monitoring and baseline research into the socio-economic benefits of the plant, seeing as we have surprisingly little information on them, about their trade and distribution, and their numbers in the wild.

There are still questions about the effects of climate change on wild orchids, and its cultivation has to be made more sustainable and profitable for local communities, as it is central to their culture, rural livelihoods and exports, while stopping smuggling.

Nepal has made progress in recent years to conserve its charismatic mammals like tigers and rhinos, but similar attention now needs to be paid to orchid conservation. Otherwise, we may soon find that these flowers will only exist in pictures.

Orchid conservationist Reshu Basyal is a Research Fellow at Greenhood Nepal.