WOC Diary: Friday (Koopowitz Lecture)

Harold Koopowitz is a well-known and respected figure in the orchid world. He is Professor of Ecology at the University of Irvine, California and a prolific author on conservation topics. His lecture on the threats to wild orchid populations and possible solutions was a long and gloomy story. In a nutshell, he believes that private collectors are the orchid’s best chance for long-term survival. I suppose there is evidence to back this up, considering that there are now more of certain types of endangered orchids in cultivation than ever existed in the wild. But if people like me are the orchid’s lifeline, I’m worried. My batting average on the death/survival ratio of orchids in my collection is not very good.

Koopowitz outlined some of the biggest challenges facing orchid conservation.

In earlier times plants have had centuries — not decades — to adapt to
changes in their preferred temperatures by migrating to more suitable
climates (he is obviously not a subscriber to Alex Hirtz’s theory).
Global warming is putting pressure on the plants, but options for
migrating to new habitat are quickly declining due to human activity
and rising sea levels. As a result, species are crowding into smaller
areas and the inevitable “island effect” is kicking in – the “island
” being a well-known evolutionary principle whereby the number of
species depends on the size of the habitat, and as the habitat gets
smaller, the species dies out.

He described the effects of “Solar Dimming”, whereby pollutants are
interfering with the sun’s rays reaching the ground. This has serious
implications for orchids, which are generally found below the forest
canopies where only 5% of the sun’s light can reach under normal circumstances. He says that solar
dimming is caused by aerosol and soot from industrial pollution
(developing countries like China have no environmental controls), dust
from the Sahara, and smoke from agricultural burning in developing

Koopowitz believes that conservationists aren’t paying enough attention
to the fact that a lot of the carbon in
the atmosphere is caused by tropical forest fires. He believes that the
solution is education; I can’t help but think that’s a overly
optimistic. It’s easy for someone from a comfortable economy like North
America to think that education is all that’s required, but the people
who are doing the burning to clear farmland are trying to survive. If it comes to a
choice between orchids and food on the table, no amount of education is
going to change the outcome of that decision. But it is worth a try.

Koopowitz then discussed the problem of “Genetic Erosion”, whereby the
plant’s ability to adapt depends on the diversity of genes. A reduced
gene pool due to disappearing populations of orchids in the wild means
that there are reduced number of genetic variants available to enable
adaptation. He places a heavy emphasis on “Ex-Situ Propagation” as a
solution, whereby orchids are artificially pollinated, selected, and
re-introduced into the wild.

He did acknowledge that there are numerous problems with relying on
ex-situ conservation to protect orchid populations. First, the problem
of genetic diversity
. Human nature is such that everyone wants a piece
of the prize-winning orchid, and orchids in captivity are bred for
qualities that impress a judge and garner a quick sale. For ex-situ propagation to work, there
needs to be a deliberate program of out-breeding, so that it is not
just the “pretty” orchids that are reproduced. Parents need be chosen
at random and growers need to deliberately avoid line breeding. In
addition, growers need to cultivate large populations of at least 1,000
plants to avoid inbreeding depression. I think it’s overly hopeful to
rely on volunteer efforts in this regard, given how expensive it is to
construct and maintain a greenhouse, and how quickly they tend to fill up with
“desirable” specimens!

Second, there’s the problem of artificial selection. Orchids that are
bred to do well in a greenhouse are no longer adapted to the wild. 

Then, there’s the problem of persistence in cultivation. Inevitably,
growers kill orchids, they lose interest, they themselves die and their
collections are dispersed to perhaps more inexpert growers.
Institutional collections (universities, botanical gardens) are at the whim of the tastes of ever-changing
administrations, and large collections kept in one place are vulnerable to catastrophes.
Koopowitz proposes that growers be diversified, so that important
collections are not in the hands of just a few institutions. He thinks
that orchids need to get into the hands of amateurs, pointing out that
there are now more paphiopedilum delenatii and rothchildianum in
private collections than ever existed in the wild. He also advocates a
centralized record-keeping system so that it is possible to widen the
ready availability of genetic material.

Koopwitz firmly believes that private collections are the best chance
to conserve orchid species, but I’m afraid the solutions he proposes
are expensive and overly idealistic. As he himself admits, “it is easy to get
grants to do research on how to conserve plants, but it is hard to get
funding to actually do it.”

Perhaps the solution won’t be in the "doing"; it is in the attempt. Anything that alerts the world to the presence and value of rare and endangered species is a good thing in my book. Keep spreading the message, Mr. Koopowitz, and God bless.