The New York Times has published quite a sensational article ("Call 911 Flowers! Lives are at Risk") describing the "rescue" of a shipment of orchids seized at the border in Miami:
"These unfortunate imports are like people trying to cross the border
illegally," said Dr. Kim E. Tripp, director of the New York Botanical
Garden in the Bronx, where the 1,100 seized orchids were sent. "We drop
everything and try to save them."
Hmmm…. now what is it about this statement that triggers the ol’ "bullshit detector"?
With statements like, "It was a race against time, since some of the plants were dehydrated and near death…", the article makes for dramatic reading. Where’s Bruce Willis when you need him?
The collectors "knew what it was they wanted, and they didn’t care what
they had to do to get it," Mr. Hachadourian said, holding up a
specimen. "They were clear-cutting orchids out of a section of forest,
and the danger is that they might remove an entire species."
Why the cynism? Well, if the orchids were truly wild-collected and shipped illegally, it’s definitely misplaced. But this statement sends up the red flags:
While the shipment’s paperwork said that the orchids were artificially
cultivated, "clearly these were wild orchids," Mr. Thurmond said.
"Clearly"??? Well, perhaps. But when it comes to orchids, I’ve heard too many stories of petty bureaucrats irresponsibly wielding their power over the intricacies of CITES paperwork to take this one at face value. Still, the article makes for a good read, if you’re partial to CNN-style info-tainment.
Call 911-Flowers! Lives Are at Risk
Published: April 6, 2005
dangerously bedraggled illegals were immediately quarantined when they
arrived from the Philippines at Miami International Airport last month.
For all of their value and their rarity, the immediate prognosis was
The unlawful arrivals were not endangered parrots, exotic
jungle cats or any other imperiled animal. They were orchids – more
than 1,100 of them and they had literally been ripped from the wild.
Now their new neighborhood could not be more different from their
native cloud forest: the threatened orchids are receiving intensive
care in the Bronx, clinging to life so stubbornly that most may
chronicle of their rescue provides a rare look at a ceaseless war
between importers and federal enforcement agencies that has led to the
seizure of more than 40,000 contraband plants in the last five years.
The primary reason for this struggle is to safeguard America’s
agriculture from pests and diseases. But after that scrutiny, many
endangered specimens have been saved by the efforts of government
agencies, nonprofit institutions, scientists and volunteers.
of plant experts across the nation are regularly called upon to rescue
plants and nurse them back to health, ultimately attempting to preserve
their gene lines. "These unfortunate imports are like people trying to
cross the border illegally," said Dr. Kim E. Tripp, director of the New
York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where the 1,100 seized orchids were
sent. "We drop everything and try to save them."
shipment of orchids from the Philippines, which arrived in Miami on
March 10, had been crammed into a dozen unlabeled cardboard boxes. Like
all such arrivals, they were inspected by the United States Department
of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the
Miami airport. Although the orchids seemed free of pests, an alert
botanist realized that the plants’ entry permit had been falsified,
according to T. Mark Thurmond, the chief plant safeguarding and pest
identification specialist for the Agriculture Department’s inspection
service office in Riverdale, Md.
While the shipment’s paperwork
said that the orchids were artificially cultivated, "clearly these were
wild orchids," Mr. Thurmond said. So the orchids were seized under the
provisions of a 1975 international treaty intended to curb the
trafficking of endangered animals and plants that have come from the
The Agriculture Department declined to disclose the name
of the shipment’s importer or other details about the seizure because
the investigation is continuing, Mr. Thurmond said. Under federal
plant-protection laws, the government can levy fines of $1,000 to
$500,000, and, if there is evidence of criminal intent, can refer the
case to prosecutors.
The Agriculture Department, as it is
required to do, notified the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,
which is responsible for finding emergency shelter for contraband
animals or plants. On March 15, Monica Powell, a biologist with the
service, telephoned the Botanical Garden and asked whether it could
accept the orchids.
Since 1990, the Botanical Garden has been
federally designated as one of 73 plan-rescue centers in the country.
Ms. Powell’s phone call could not have come at a worse time, since the
horticultural staff was toiling on the Botanical Garden’s popular
orchid show, which ended March 27. "But conservation takes precedence
for us," said Todd Forrest, an associate vice president who is in
charge of the horticultural division.
The illicit shipment was
"among the top five largest of the last decade," said Mark Albert, a
biologist in the division of management authority at the Fish and
Wildlife Service. According to Mr. Albert, in the last five years 1,327
seized plant shipments, totaling 42,086 plants, have gone to the
nation’s rescue centers. Seventy-eight percent of the plants were
orchids, 14 percent were cacti, and the other 8 percent included
cycads, aloes and carnivorous plants.
On March 18, the plant shipment arrived at the Botanical Garden from
Miami. The orchids were quarantined in the garden’s Propagation Range,
a greenhouse complex, to protect the institution’s collections from
"It was a race against time, since some of the
plants were dehydrated and near death," said Marc Hachadourian, the
gardener for the institution’s permanent collection of 7,000 orchids.
and the curator for greenhouse collections, Darrin Duling, along with
three volunteers, immediately began a process of triage, "prioritizing
as in a hospital emergency room, when you’re dealing with the wounded,"
Mr. Forrest said. Some 10 to 15 percent of the plants were dead on
arrival or could not be saved. "Others needed help immediately," Mr.
The orchids were hardly a riotous rainbow as they
came out of the boxes. "We were appalled to see their condition," Mr.
Hachadourian said. "The orchids were wilted, torn, shriveled and
severely dehydrated, and there was a lot of mechanical damage [broken
stems]. And they hadn’t received any sunlight."
were so jammed together "that they were sent to their doom, crushed to
death, simply by the way they had been packed," Mr. Hachadourian said.
"It was so depressing. As if you were discovering a room full of tiger
or leopard skins."
The collectors "knew what it was they wanted,
and they didn’t care what they had to do to get it," Mr. Hachadourian
said, holding up a specimen. "They were clear-cutting orchids out of a
section of forest, and the danger is that they might remove an entire
species." In some cases, Mr. Hachadourian said, newly discovered
species have been "collected to extinction within a year."
rapaciousness is a more extreme form of the orchid poaching depicted in
the 2002 film "Adaptation," starring Chris Cooper as a horticultural
renegade arrested for collecting wild orchids from a Florida swamp,
based on Susan Orlean’s 1999 book, "The Orchid Thief."
Bronx, the team began examining each specimen for dead or dying leaves.
So far, no insects or diseases have been discovered. But since some
plants had started to rot, sections of leaves and stalks were cut off.
"We’re doing emergency amputation to save them," Mr. Hachadourian said.
To rehydrate the orchids, workers began packing their roots with
moist sphagnum moss. "But we can’t water them yet because that might
encourage pathogens and the plants are so stressed that they are
susceptible to them," Mr. Hachadourian said. It is also too soon to
expose them to sunlight now since they might burn and dehydrate. And
fertilizer would force them to grow, when they are not yet ready.
fabled for their extravagant beauty, belong to the most highly evolved
and complex flowering-plant family, which has 30,000 wild species. Some
of the plants in the Miami shipment that have been identified are worth
$500 or more, and the entire collection could be worth in the tens of
thousands of dollars.
A few of the plants, called Vanda ustii,
have only recently been described by scientists. Among the other
discoveries so far is a small specimen of Grammatophyllum speciosum, a
member of the world’s largest known orchid species that, when mature,
can have plants weighing several tons.
Many of the other seized
specimens are "uncommonly large," Mr. Hachadourian added. "It would
take decades to get orchids of this size. So ripping them out is like
felling large, old trees in the forest."
When the orchids start
flowering again, "we could find some that may be new to science, since
they’ve been yanked from trees in remote parts of the rain forest," Dr.
The seized orchids will need a lot of T.L.C. "In
the past, 80 to 90 percent have survived," Mr. Hachadourian said of
previous rescues. "But it’s impossible to say how many of these will
If rain forest destruction and population expansion
continue, "these orchids could someday be the only genetic survivors of
those in the wild," Mr. Hachadourian added.
Of the destiny of
the orchids, which are on permanent loan from the government, Dr.
Tripp, said: "We are their stewards. We hold them as a treasure in
perpetuity, for everyone."