Wild orchids on brink of extinction, warns expert

Sheridan Mahavera

Orchid species yet to be identified by scientists risk being wiped out if the implementation of policies to protect flora and fauna remains lax. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, July 22, 2020.

THE country’s wild orchids could disappear in five to 10 years if the rate at which they are harvested continues, said a forestry expert.

Dr Ruth Kiew of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia told The Malaysian Insight that rare varieties of these scientifically important plants are being harvested for sale to collectors, often on online platforms.

Although international trade in these plants is prohibited under the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, she said local trade remains unregulated.

The lack of enforcement contradicts the goals set out in Malaysia’s own National Biodiversity Policy 2016-2025.

Goal 3 states that the country will protect all its key ecosystems and diverse wildlife and plant species, and prevent their extinction by applying the relevant laws.

The policy also commits the government to crack down on the illegal trade of flora and fauna.

The gap between a policy and its execution is a common problem in Malaysia, said conservationist Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail, adding that good legislation and studies are often shelved by bureaucracy after they are adopted.

“When it comes to laws and policies on conservation, we have among the best in the world. But our problem is the implementation of these policies.”

Without commitment, said Kiew, the illegal sale of wild orchids will persist to the point that species yet to be identified by scientists will be wiped out.

“Malaysia’s wild orchid diversity is a treasure trove of potentially valuable species and includes many species waiting to be discovered and named scientifically. Many are extremely rare and are known from small populations growing in only one place.”

Of the world’s 30,000 orchid species, Malaysia is home to about 3,000, with some 1,000 found only in the peninsula. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, July 22, 2020.

The illegal collection and sale of wild orchids is being fuelled by the internet, with trade conducted on social media and e-commerce platforms escaping the authorities’ notice.

“I have yet to hear of any action being taken against people who offer orchids for sale over the internet.

“It is extremely difficult to catch these collectors red-handed. However, their activities can be monitored by regularly inspecting nurseries and checking online where these plants are sold.”

Orchids are one of the largest families of flowering plants and are traded and used as ornamental plants, in medicine and as food, according to a 2017 paper in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

There are an estimated 30,000 species worldwide, and Malaysia has about 3,000, with some 1,000 found only in the peninsula.

Most of the orchid trade in the country happens at commercial nurseries like those in Sg Buloh, Selangor, which are popular with Klang Valley folk.

“Our orchids are from the phalaenopsis family, and they are very popular because of their large flowers and relatively easy maintenance,” said Soh Li Ling of the Sanyi Orchid nursery.

Almost all of the nurseries in the Klang Valley sell only cultivated flowers, with “orkid hutan”, harvested from the jungle, rarely seen in commercial businesses, said Soh.

Kiew said the underground trade in wild-harvested orchids in Malaysia is made easier by the clearing of forests for oil palm plantations and hill resorts.

“Several groups of commercial collectors, even those from Thailand, are making a living by collecting orchids from all over Peninsular Malaysia, even in the most remote places.

“Since their primary purpose is to make money, they strip off every plant they see, vacuuming them up and leaving none to recover.

“We see them systematically sourcing the country at an alarming rate. We are seeing orchid biodiversity disappearing before our very eyes. In five to 10 years’ time, there will be very little left.” – July 22, 2020.

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