Confronting the Wild Orchid Trade


The demand for wild orchids and their derivatives continues to grow unabated in China. Plants are collected for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and for horticulture, and over-extraction now constitutes the single greatest threat to their survival in the region. Observations indicate that species selection is not taxonomically or temporally uniform: particular, high profile ‘primary’ taxa are preferentially targeted and removed from the wild first, followed by ‘secondary’ substitute taxa once supplies of the former have been exhausted. This demand has the capacity to impact natural areas far removed from the point of sale. These dynamics probably arise because species are either locally non-native or because they have already been depleted in the wild in the vicinity of the area of consumption, and is facilitated by a low cost of collection at source and well organised supply chains. The trade is clearly unsustainable but because basic inventory data for orchids is lacking in the region, it is not possible at present to determine which species face the greatest risk of extinction in the wild.

KFBG is attempting to quantify these dynamics at the heart of the trade in South China and neighbouring countries. We are comparing orchid diversity at sites that range from (near-) pristine through depleted to exhausted habitats in the wild on the one hand, versus locally representative through enriched to pooled stocks of increasingly widely sourced taxa at points of sale on the other. This is helping us to identify species or species groups at higher risk of extinction due to over-collection, and will allow for improved characterisation of trade dynamics and trends for improved regulation and mitigation. Given the enormous natural diversity of orchids in the region, and the perennial problem of accurate species identification in the absence of fertile specimens, we are applying molecular techniques (DNA barcodes) for the identification of plants and their parts.