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Home / Politics / News /  High-priced rare orchids are smuggled out of India

GUWAHATI : Many years ago, on a dripping wet day in a forest in Cherrapunjee, Khyanjeet Gogoi saw the blue vanda (Vanda coerulea) for the first time. He still remembers the sight of the rare orchid, which looked, at a glance, like the long tresses of a woman. So many were in bloom that day that the “forest", it seemed to Gogoi, “had turned blue."

In subsequent visits to the East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, he found it harder to spot the delicate blooms in the wild. Three decades later, Gogoi is doing what he can to stop the illegal trade in this rare flower—as well as other orchids that grow wild in the tropical forests of the North-East. It’s not an easy task, given how the underground trade in orchids is not even a blip on the radar of law enforcers, even though the flowers are protected by India’s wildlife laws.

For instance, in May this year, a police station in Tinsukia, Assam, appeared to be stumped by a FIR (first information report) filed by the Orchid Society of Eastern Himalaya, a non-governmental organization. It accused the owner of a Facebook page of advertising and selling rare orchids protected under Schedule VI of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 to clients in the country. The NGO warned that if the unabated collection of orchids from the wild for trade continues, then many of these species run the risk of going extinct.

“But the police told us that they were not supposed to look into the trade of flowers," says Gogoi, who is a legal advisor to the Orchid Society of Eastern Himalaya. “We had to explain to them that these are valuable and rare plants. But many people from the police or even the forest department won’t be able to differentiate between orchids and common flowers," he says.

And, it is hard to find estimates about the value of flowers being trafficked, from India and across the world.

In a paper published in Biological Conservation, in 2015, researchers Amy Hinsley, Diogo Verissimo, and David L. Roberts stated that the demand for wildlife products drives an illegal trade estimated to be worth up to $10 billion per year. “Orchids are one of the best-selling plants in the legal horticultural trade but are also traded illegally and make up 70% of all species listed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)," the paper stated.

CITES comes up with an Annual Illegal Trade Report. Its analysis of wildlife seizure data, between 2016 and 2020, underlines the magnitude of the problem.

A total of 917 genera were specified in the seizure records—just 20 of these genera accounted for almost half of all seizure records (43,685 records or 48% of all seizure records). “This included a variety of genera such as giant clams, stony corals, ginseng, kuth, rosewood, crocodiles, staghorn coral, elephants, orchids, alligator, brain corals, pythons, conchs, aloe, Mediterranean tortoises, pangolins, and sea horses," the organization reported.

From India, orchids are mainly traded via the Myanmar border in Moreh, Manipur. They find their way to Myanmar, China, and Vietnam, where they are treasured for their ornamental and medicinal properties.

Currently, the blue vanda, the red vanda (Renanthara imschootiana), and all nine species of the lady’s slipper are protected under Schedule VI of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, this has not stopped their trafficking. Seizures of the flowers have been reported from West Bengal and Assam by the department of revenue intelligence (DRI), according to a factsheet on India’s illegal orchid trade released by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. “Orchids are illegally collected and traded for ornamental plants, traditional medicine and food," it said.

Saket Badola, who is currently the director of Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, and former head of TRAFFIC in India, says, “This factsheet is important because its purpose was to create awareness among the enforcement agencies. We know that orchid trade is happening but we don’t have enough data about it. The scale of the trade is unknown. Even the species which are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, are often being smuggled because they are not being identified."

An officer from an enforcement agency, who didn’t want to be quoted, said that seizures of orchids in North-East India started just five years ago and that too not on a regular basis.

Some varieties are collected from the wild and used in making Chyawanprash, a popular dietary supplement in India. Gogoi says that the Chinese demand for orchids is because of a belief in their medicinal quality. “The Chinese think that orchids are aphrodisiac and it enhances sexual power. There was a time when Dendrobium aphyllum, an orchid commonly found in Upper Assam districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, was sent in bulk to China. Its population has dwindled now," he said.

The Tinsukia police, however, said it did not find evidence of illegal trade. According to Inspector Parag Jyoti Bhuyan of the Tinsukia police station, who investigated the complaint of the NGO cited above, “We didn’t get evidence that these collectors are selling orchids banned under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 on Facebook. If they were collecting these orchids from reserve forests, then they could be charged under Forest Rights Act. But there is no proof of that."

Local to global

In 1847, the blue vanda was formally “discovered" in the Khasi Hills by British botanist John Lindley. A few years later, another botanist Joseph Hooker wrote about how he had foraged clusters of the flower to carry to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. But, ultimately, very few specimens reached England alive.

Orchids being sold at village markets is a common sight in the roadside markets of Guwahati, Shillong and Imphal. Gogoi says most of the villagers are unaware about the commercial value of these plants.

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“They know that these plants have a demand among city folks. So, they collect it from their nearby forests. But traders take advantage and engage them in collecting orchids from the wild. The villagers might sell it for 50-200/kg and the trader will sell it for 5,000/kg. When it reaches the global market, its price will soar to 15,000/kg" he said.

The states in the North-East, says Gogoi, form the ‘orchid hotspot’ of India. With 900 species of orchids, they account for 72% of the total orchid population in the country. But trade in this region, he says, has gathered steam only since the last decade. “Earlier, orchids were smuggled from Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim. But now vigilance has increased along that route and the number of orchids has also dwindled in that region. So, the focus is on the North-East," he says.

Not all trade in the flowers is a crime. In the 1980s, the government even gave out licences for legal trade in orchids. “However, very few people have this licence in the North-Eastern states," Gogoi says. The racket is fairly organized with a well-oiled network of collectors, middlemen and sellers—and mostly run out of Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur.

Without a survey, it is difficult to tell the extent of the damage to the orchid population. Karbi Anglong is reportedly one of the most orchid diverse regions in Assam. However, Bolin Deori, additional superintendent of police, West Karbi Anglong, states that the forests in Karbi Anglong are rapidly losing their orchid population. “You will now hardly get to see the orchids from the Dendrobium family. Maybe 20% now survive in the wild" he said.

A researcher from Manipur flagged similar damage in the state’s hill districts of Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Churachandpur.

Online trade of orchids

The Internet has become one of the major pathways of orchid trade and North-East India is no exception. Bappa Mandal, who was named in the FIR registered at Tinsukia police station, last month, runs a Facebook page called Meghalaya Orchid. The page puts up a photo and price of the wild orchids and interested buyers contact the seller through a phone number shared in the page or through messenger. “Many of these groups start as horticulture fan groups where they appreciate each other’s plants and post photos," says Ivy Farheen Hussain, a project officer with wildlife NGO Aaranyak. “When they realize that there is a demand for these plants, they start posting the price and negotiate with customers. These groups generally have 11000-12,000 members. Last year, I tracked down 15 such groups. Then, I reported them and got them blocked. But I am sure more groups have popped up in the meantime."

There are many groups on Facebook, some with more than 20,000 members, where orchids are traded openly. Apart from that, platforms like WhatsApp and Ebay are also used for trading of orchids.

Of course, not all orchids are banned from being traded. “Orchids which are not protected under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, can be cultivated and sold. It is difficult though to figure out from photos posted on online groups whether a plant has been cultivated in somebody’s backyard or uprooted from the wild," says Badola.

Gogoi says that traders don’t generally sell protected species like the blue vanda directly on social media. “They know the punishment involved. So, they don’t trade these orchids directly. Once they make contact with the seller, the orchids are delivered discreetly," he says.

Commercial prospects

Thailand is currently the world’s biggest producer and exporter of cut orchids, with total exports valued at $85.5 million in 2019—America and Europe are some of its biggest markets. Some experts say that following the Thailand way of commercialization might stop the illegal harvesting of orchids.

Scientist Jumter Nyorak, who has been working on biotechnology and taxonomy of orchids in the Orchid Research Centre at Tippi in Arunachal Pradesh since the last two decades, says that if production of orchids can start in laboratories with the help of tissue culture, it will stop the illegal trade. “Currently, we don’t have the equipment or facility to carry out production of orchids in our laboratories. We can do that if our resources are upgraded. Then, there will be no need to collect orchids from the wild and the species will be saved. The demand for orchids as ornamental plants will always be there because they are long-lasting plants—with proper care, some orchids can last for 1-3 months after blooming" he says.

Ankur Raj Gogoi, a 28-year-old orchid conservationist from Assam, meanwhile, is working towards setting up an orchid sanctuary in Charaideo district, with the help of the local Tai Khamyang community. “At the Sola Reserve Forest, there are 78 species of orchids. The forest is protected by the Tai Khamyangs, who inhabit the 10-15 villages around that forest. We have plans to inaugurate it by next year. The plan is to invite orchid enthusiasts from around the globe and enjoy the beauty of orchids in their natural surroundings," Ankur says.

The forest is also home to wildlife like Bengal slow loris, deer, capped langur, the black panther and 60 species of butterflies. He hopes the sanctuary will also boost the local economy, generate jobs for the youth from nearby villages.

According to enforcement agencies, however, orchid trade is still being done mainly at the local level in India. Agni Mitra, deputy director, East Zone, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), says, “In India, the trade is limited to sporadic extraction to meet the demand of local nurseries and households." He does admit that a consignment of exotic wild animals seized in Mizoram a few years back contained orchids. “Some seizures have also been made from North Bengal. Currently, we can only work on the protection of species which enjoy scheduled status under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, if someone collects any species of orchids from a protected forest, then that will be a punishable offence."

Gogoi, however, expressed concern about the species which don’t enjoy any protection under our wildlife laws – only 11 are protected. He says, “We need to act fast to stop the illegal trade of orchids. If we wait for them to attain scheduled status under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, many more species might become extinct in the North-East."

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