Legal & illegal orchids: Now I’m really confused

Viet_groupA couple of years ago, US Customs seized and confiscated seven specimens of a newly-discovered orchid, Paphiopedilum vietnamense, from someone who attempted to smuggle them in to the country from Vietnam. The U.S. government offered the plants back to Vietnam, who did not want them. The plants were then sent to a “Rescue Centre” at the U.S. Botanical Garden, where they still are today, property of the U.S. Government.

So far so good.

Next, the USBG approached Bob Wellenstein of Antec Laboratories to help them propagate the plants. Antec, with the blessing of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, now has several flasks containing 15 plants for sale for $175 each, and will have more available later in the year. The original seven plants are still and always will be illegal contraband, but hey, the babies are fair game.

Am I the only one confused about the point of all this? Smugglers = bad guys. Fine ’em, send ’em to jail, seize their plants, then propagate them like crazy and make a huge profit. Thanks very much for all your trouble, Mr. Smuggler.

Bob Wellenstein, who seems like a very fine and principled man, responds to this murky topic on the American Orchid Society’s forum.

Yeah, I know, nothing is black and white. A rare species of orchids hasn’t got a hope in hell of surviving in the wild, if it becomes a black market commodity. It’ll be stripped from its native habitat and sold for breathtaking sums of money in the blink of an eye. If it’s artificially propagated and made available for sale, legally, then the black market will be undercut. Theoretically, there would then be no need to collect plants and hence push wild populations into extinction. Let the loggers take care of that through habitat destruction — it’s much more efficient.