Paphiopedilum (Paphs) slipper orchids are popular with orchid hobbyists for their large and unusual showy flowers, and their relatively straightforward care that makes them well-suited to the low light and moderate temperatures of our homes. Many of us grow (or have tried growing!) both hybrids and species. Among popular species is Paphiopedilum delenatii, which loosely resembles one of our native Canadian orchids. Many orchid vendors offer it for sale, and a few OOS members grow this compact species on their windowsill.
Paphiopedilum delenatii grows on steep mountain slopes and cliffs rich in humus and leaf litter, under the shade of trees and shrubs. It is critically endangered, with less than 250 individuals left in the wild, growing in four areas in Vietnam and China. Likewise 81 of the other 84 Paphiopedilum species are also on the brink of extinction, the main threats being illegal poaching, followed by habitat loss.
Laws to protect orchids from poaching are often ineffective, not enforced, unenforceable, or simply counter-productive. Protecting species against poaching is very difficult, because as populations dwindle, the value of those remaining in the wild increases exponentially, along with the ambition of the poachers responsible. In the case of rhinos, of which all 5 species are endangered, their rarity and black-market price has led to absurd scenarios like rhino poaching occurring inside a zoo in France, and armed bodyguards keeping watch 24/7 over the last two northern white rhinos. Clearly, fighting poaching with security and law enforcement is at best not feasible for the majority of threatened species, and at worst can spiral into arms races between authorities and poachers. These strategies do nothing to reduce demand, or to provide poachers with alternative ways to feed their families.
Much of the value we place on endangered species like Paphiopedilum delenatii comes from misunderstanding. Orchids have always been surrounded with myths and prestige that place undue pressures on them for collecting, and prevent people from really understanding orchids at face value. Why are Paphs so sought after? If we want pretty pink and white flowers, petunias and cosmos are much easier to grow and are always in bloom. Shouldn’t they be more valuable? Many Paphs have warty and hairy flowers – hardly what you would normally call beautiful. There are thousands of other rare and equally extraordinary plant species that are deserving of our admiration. Why are they not the subject of poaching? Do we really love Paphs for their amazing evolutionary adaptations, or as status symbols to brag about?
Secrecy is often used by conservationists and poachers alike to keep others away, and only continues to perpetuate ignorance about orchids. How can we be persuaded to protect species, to leave large swaths of pristine habitat unexploited, and restore developed lands back into forests and wetlands, if most of us are not even aware of the richness of natural wonders out there?
There are a few reasons for hope though. Several tropical countries that created marine reserves have found that sharks are much more valuable alive for the tourism dollars they bring to scuba diving destinations, than killed for shark-fin soup. Similarly, conservation areas around the world are beginning to make orchids and their habitats more valuable for ecotourism rather than exploitation. Unlike rhinos, orchids are relatively easy to propagate by the thousands, so we don’t need to strip plants from the wild to show off a beautiful Paphiopedilum delenatii on our windowsill. Orchid nurseries are uniquely positioned to reduce demand for wild-collected plants, a key factor in their conservation.
So what can you can do? Get to know more about the conservation status of some of the orchids you grow. The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org) is a great place to search your favourite species, or get stats on a whole genus. You can also ask orchid vendors you buy from about how they source their plant material. Is it grown from wild-collected seeds, or divisions of plants rescued from logging, or line bred in captivity for generations? I believe vendors will improve the traceability of their orchids if they see that consumers like us are interested in ethically sourced plants. Finally, consider supporting conservation areas and the communities around them by going on trips to see orchids in the wild. There are plenty of conservation areas with orchids near Ottawa, and organizations like Orchid Conservation Alliance guide ecotours abroad.
Orchid Conservation Alliance, orchidconservationalliance.org/ecotours
Contributed by Daniel Brumar, Conservation Chair
Photograph credit: Jan Johns