We have come across orchids at least once in our life and must have been bewitched by their beauty. They often make people obsessed with their beautiful and vibrant flowers. The love for orchids, however, is not a new thing. It can be dated back to as early as the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, during the Victorian era. This era of flower madness was named ‘Orchidelirium’, when the craze for collecting and owning orchids reached an extreme level. This passion still persists among some people though it may not be as extreme as in the past. But, obsession aside, how well do we know them? Are they really that important? Are they ceasing to exist?
Well, orchids have always been one of my favorite flowers since I was a kid. However, I started a strong liking towards it a year back. When I joined Greenhood Nepal, an NGO working for wildlife conservation in Nepal, I got a chance to assist in a wild orchids’ conservation project. During the first few months of my work, I dug into most of the literature I could find on them. I was really surprised to learn facts and details of orchids I never knew and heard of. The more I came to know about it, the more interesting it got.
In Nepal, orchids are referred to as Sungava or Chandigava, and collectively Sunakhari. There are 437 species of them, and new species are still being discovered to date. In spite of being a diverse family, they are on the brink of becoming endangered to extinct. Orchids of Nepal are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Appendix II includes species that may become threatened unless their trade is closely controlled. In fact, seventy percent of species listed in CITES worldwide are orchid species.
It is quite heart-breaking if we realize the number of orchids we have lost so far. Orchids are often collected haphazardly from the forest and smuggled past the borders, whilst we remain oblivious to it. The once abundant orchids have been cleared out from most of their natural habitats. According to some literature, tons of orchids loaded in trucks used to be transported to China in the past. Unsustainable harvest and trade are one of the major causes pushing them towards extinction.
Orchids, besides their aesthetic value, have medicinal value as well. Dactylorhiza hatagirea, commonly known as Panch Aunle because of its roots resembling a hand with three or five fingers, is an orchid species. It is used as a tonic and aphrodisiac in different parts of the Himalayas. Some orchid species are used to treat stomach ache, bone fracture, cold, wound and weaknesses. They have a high demand in the cosmetic world as well, and are used in perfumes and lotions. Are you familiar with the fact that vanilla essence, a famous flavoring agent in ice-creams, chocolates, etc., is derived from orchids too?
If we look at some progress made by the government on conserving orchids, we can see a ray of hope though. The government of Nepal introduced orchid collection and commercial farming development guidelines in the year of 2012. Department of Plant Resources (DPR) has introduced micro propagation protocol for some orchid species. In-situ conservation in orchid’s natural habitats within conservation areas, national parks and wildlife reserves are established. Also, ex-situ conservation outside their natural habitats in botanical gardens, nurseries, and commercial farms is being carried out at Godavari, Daman and Dang respectively.
Despite these efforts, there are many challenges; often exacerbated due to knowledge gaps among people. For a developing country like Nepal, sustainable and legal harvest of orchids is a must. In this way, the local communities and the nation itself can benefit from its resources while orchids are also conserved at a sustainable level. Coupled with this, commercial farming and propagation through tissue culture should be promoted. Since forests are home to them, it is important to ensure that those habitats are well protected. Also, community based orchid conservation must be highly encouraged.
There are still milestones to cover to achieve the ultimate goal of orchid conservation. They are threatened despite having millions of admirers worldwide. It is high time we act for their survival in the wild, and promote sustainable trade to benefit local communities and all those who value orchids.
The author is a forestry graduate and a research associate at Greenhood Nepal.