Saving nature by protecting orchids

The highly protected Pachale orchid bulbs in Gorkha. Photo: RESHU BASHYAL/GREENHOOD NEPAL

World Nature Conservation Day on 28 July is a reminder to us to conserve nature and nurture it. Too often, however, our visions of nature exclude plants and our rich relationship with them.

Plants are everywhere, which makes them vital but also easy to overlook. They are often left in the background, both during public discourse and by government officials allocating conservation budgets. Conservation campaigns and projects tend to focus on charismatic animals like rhinos and tigers, and on protecting Nepal’s spectacular landscapes.

However, all of these animals and places rely on the plant life that surrounds us. This includes many rare, threatened, and unique plant species. Nowhere is this more urgent than with orchids – the most diverse groups of flowering plants on the planet with over 30,000 species globally.

Nepal hosts over 500 species of orchids, from the unusually shaped foxtail (Rhynchostylis) that grows on trees in the mountains, highly-protected pachaule (Dactylorhiza hatagirea) orchid known for its medicinal properties to the endangered lady slipper (Cypripedium himalaicum) collected for its shoe-shaped flowers.

Orchid growing on a tree in Panchase. Photo: KUMAR PAUDEL/GREENHOOD NEPAL

More than 100 of them have purported medicinal properties in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Amchi traditional medicine cultures, ranging from pain relief to aphrodisiacs, and hence highly sought after. Many are also harvested as ornamental plants and as fodder for livestock. Orchids form a vital part of Nepal’s rich biodiversity, but many communities also depend on them for livelihood.

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 means. Commercial trade is likely to increase as demand in China and India grows, especially as demand for medicinal plants increases in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now there is serious concern about the sustainability and legality of commercial harvesting. Reports suggest that intense collecting has led to the collapse of some populations, resulting in a national ban on the harvest of pachaule orchids in 1993.

Nepal is home to over 500 different species of orchids. Photo: KUMAR PAUDEL/GREENHOOD NEPAL

A further ban on the wild harvest of many Nepali plant species - including all orchids - was introduced in 2017, although this is being relaxed in hopes of re-establishing a more sustainable legal harvest in future.

Despite these efforts on paper to protect orchids from illegal trade, in practice plant conservation is still often neglected. Orchids have made it into legislation, but often only on paper.

Most poaching of wild orchids goes unreported. In Pokhara’s Panchase, harvesters from outside the community have even been using monkeys to gather valuable orchids from local forests.

Of late, there have been seizures, including a 2017 case where more than 74kg of Nepal’s most highly protected orchid species were apprehended. There have been over 25 seizures of wild orchids since 2010, nearly half of them bound for China.

Yet, seizures of protected plants are very rare and incidental. More often than not it is a case of the police spot-checking a truck or a bus and finding wild plants without permits. These seizures are only the tip of the iceberg, and are in stark contrast to huge investments and efforts deployed to protect threatened animal species.

Admittedly, however, our relationship with plants is often different from that we have with animals. Nepal has a long history of legal, regulated trade of many plants, especially medicinal species that are central to its culture, rural livelihoods, and exports. For example, wild spikenard roots are harvested under a strict quota system, and there are efforts to make this regulated trade more sustainable.

A tree overgrown with orchids on the way to Panchase, Pokhara. Photo: KUMAR PAUDEL/GREENHOOD NEPAL

Over the years, the government has issued many regulations, committing to both protecting orchids and also promoting sustainable harvests to enhance income generation of rural communities. This includes the 2013 ‘Orchid Harvest and Commercial Cultivation Directive’ which is being revisited with current amendments to the CITES Act 2017 that may soon allow for more sustainable, legal trade in the future.

However, ensuring that the legal trade of wild plants is sustainable requires more than careful management and oversight. Baseline research and regular monitoring are a must. As it is, even for the most sought after 10-15 orchid species, we have surprisingly little information on them, about their trade and distribution, and their numbers in the wild.

There are still questions about making orchid trade more sustainable and profitable for local communities while stopping smuggling. Nepal has an opportunity to protect biodiversity and enhance rural livelihood with benefits fairy distributed along value chains, but only through well-managed, legal sourcing.

This is possible only if plant research and conservation are given their due priority. Orchids are found in our laws, in our forests, in our gardens, and in our medicines. This Nature Conservation Day let us commit to protecting them into the future and in the wild.

Reshu Bashyal is Research Fellow at Greenhood Nepal.

Jacob Phelps, PhD is co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Orchid Specialist Group, Global Trade Programme.