Phrag. Kovachii sites in Peru destroyed

In the December issue of Orchid Digest magazine, Harold Koopowitz wrote an interesting article about his visit to Peru. He and his companions had many adventures travelling through rough terrain to document and photograph a recently discovered patch of Phragmipedium Kovachii, deep in the jungle.

Now comes news from a Peruvian grower that this patch, as with three other locations discovered earlier, has been stripped bare of these magnificent orchids:

“I happened to return to my hotel at lunch time with my friend, Manuel Camacho who is a local orchid enthusiast and guide to the Phragmipedium kovachii sites. We noticed a double cabin pick truck in the door of the hotel. What we saw in this pickup shocked us both and we could not believe what we were seeing!

There were 7 large rice and coffee sacks stuffed full with several hundred of the largest P. kovachii that we have ever seen with leaves fully 2-3 feet long sticking out the tops of the sacks with no attempt to hide them. ”

“In early September, a friend of mine went to the site which Koopowitz visited & photographed only to find it totally wiped out including all visible seedling except for two plants that they saw very high up out of reach on the cliff which is the only reason they are still there. They took photographs of this site as it is today which I am forwarding to Koopowitz for the record. We know who did the deed because he sold several hundred to an Ecuadorian dealer and others to a dealer in Lima. He offered 200 to me which I turned down. ”

****

Full article:
Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2003 14:51:21 +0800
From: “Peter O’Byrne”
To: “OrchidGuideDigest”
Subject: [OGD] Phragmepedium kovachii sites destroyed.

To Tennis and others who think that the only way to “save” orchid species is to rip them out of the wild & then love them to death in the alien and artificial environment of a greenhouse …. congratulations.

You will be overjoyed to read the following. People like you have successfully “saved” P. kovachii from extinction.

The following is the first part of a lengthy posting by Olaf Gruss on the Orchid Spring Discussion Board on Tuesday, December 23. In Olaf’s posting it is not clear which bits (if any) were written by Olaf, and which bits were written by Lee Moore.

—————————————————————-
Dear orchidfriends,

Today I get from a friend a very interesting but also horrible story about Phrag. kovachii. The original mail was written by Lee Moore and send to many orchidists all over the world.

I have just returned from my farm in Moybamba this week and what I am going to relate to you about what I have seen and discovered on this trip will shock and enrage you.

I happened to return to my hotel at lunch time with my friend, Manuel Camacho who is a local orchid enthusiast and guide to the Phragmipedium
kovachii sites. We noticed a double cabin pick truck in the door of the hotel. What we saw in this pickup shocked us both and we could not believe
what we were seeing!

There were 7 large rice and coffee sacks stuffed full with several hundred of the largest P.kovachii that we have ever seen with leaves fully 2-3 feet long sticking out the tops of the sacks with no attempt to hide them. I wanted to take a video or photo but I had left my cameras at the farm and was helpless.

My wife had seen the farmer Faustino Medina hanging around the hotel earlier that and asked why he was here. He just said he came to see some friends. Farmer Faustino is the original discoverer of the P.k and now we know why he was hanging around our hotel. We had heard rumors about a new site being found and now it was confirmed because the previous four sites have been totally wiped out.

This was just a coincidence and a one time chance that we happened to come in while the truck was parked at the hotel to see this contraband. This
makes me wonder how many others that we do not have the chance to see. Since it was Saturday, we could not report this to INRENA to have this man
detained. I took down his license etc. and found out from the hotel reception who he was and where he lived which was Tarapoto. I also learned that he
comes to Moyobamba very often and does the same thing. So he checked out with his truck load of Phragmipedium kovachii and went on his way
with no one to stop him. We went to Tarapoto on Monday to make the denouncement to INRENA about this atrocity. Guess what? All government
offices in Peru had shut down totally until the 6th of January for summer vacations. Only in Peru does things like this happen. The whole government shuts down for 3 weeks… can you believe this?

Anyway, I found that there had an exhibition of the famous new and most ‘valuable’ orchid in the world at a downtown hotel and was featured on
the local TV the week before. Incidentally, INRENA, said or did nothing about this. After investigating this, I found that the exhibitor had been the owner of the pickup truck, Ing. Kenneth Reategui who had a small recreational park and restaurant on the outskirts of town. I went there in hopes of getting some pictures as evidence. After paying my entrance fee of 1 Sol to this abandoned park, I asked the young boy that seemed to be in charge about these new special slipper orchids. He said that Mr. Kenneth brought a lot of them in the other day but has taken them all to Lima to a big orchid dealer in Lima.

Also, we learned that a few weeks after Koopowitz visited the last known site that was teaming with P. kovachii about which he wrote in the Orchidist, a helicopter with cargo boxes on the skids, came in to pick up an unknown large quantity in sacks. The helicopter did not land at the site but picked them up on the road after they had been brought out by ‘orchid enthusiasts’. We have the name of the helicopter company and the registration number that has been reported to INRENA which has done nothing about it. We are trying to investigate this ourselves to find out who chartered that helicopter on that date to make an official denouncement with documentation.

In early September, a friend of mine went to the site which Koopowitz visited & photographed only to find it totally wiped out including all
visible seedling except for two plants that they saw very high up out of reach on the cliff which is the only reason they are still there. They took
photographs of this site as it is today which I am forwarding to Koopowitz for the record. We know who did the deed because he sold several hundred to an Ecuadorian dealer and others to a dealer in Lima. He offered 200 to me which I turned down. He is Jose Mendoza who was the taxi driver that
took Kovach to Progresso when he got his single plant that he took to Selby for identification. We know him well because he has been our
taxi driver for a couple of years until recently when we dispatched him after finding out what he was doing.

Now, a new site has been found by farmer Faustino which also is quickly going the way of the Dodo Bird. These statements are fact and not rumor because we live there and know everyone and almost everything that is going on.

Unfortunately, the Phragmipediium kovachii has had a very sad history since its discovery by farmer Faustino Medina in May a year and a half ago. The
first plants were sold to truck drivers and tourists on the side of the road as pretty flowering plants for less than a dollar. Naturally, they
never would have survived in such hands. Then along came Villena who bought up all she could get her hands on and then Kovach got his single
plant left over after Villena left.

Farmer Faustino had found two sites which were quickly wiped out. My wife was able to get a hold of some of these for our nursery before they were all gone. But these were sabotaged by a local jealous ‘orchid enthusiast’ in an attempt to keep us out of the future market. Most of these died but we were able to salvage a few of these which are growing well now. Then farmer Juan found two more sites which were also quickly wiped out. The second site
being the one that Koopowitz visited and wrote about but is now gone with the wind. And now comes farmer Faustino with another recent find
which will not last very long. I only saw ONE pickup truck load going out. How many more have I not seen and are yet to go out until those
are also wiped out? This last site will not see the New Year!

Phrag. Kovachii discoverer busted

Remember my post of November 12th (“A rat among the orchids”)?

Jury indicts Virginia nursery owner for alleged orchid smuggling:

“After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

If convicted, Kovach could face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.”

Here’s the full text of the article:

Jury indicts Virginia nursery owner for alleged orchid smuggling”.
Associated Press

One of the most prized orchid discoveries in years has led to a federal smuggling indictment of the Virginia nursery owner who brought the flower into Florida.

After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted James Michael Kovach on charges of smuggling and illegally possessing a rare Peruvian orchid now named for him: Phragmipedium kovachii.

Kovach, 48, has not been taken into custody. His mentor, Miami orchid expert Lee Moore, said Kovach was unaware of the Nov. 19 indictment. A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Kovach’s home in Goldvein, Va., declined to comment and hung up.

If convicted, Kovach could face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $350,000.

The indictment against Kovach marks the first criminal charges in the investigation, launched soon after Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota trumpeted Kovach’s find in June 2002.

“It’s a rich, brilliant red purple. Big, round, well-shaped – it apparently has no odor – and one flower per stem seems to be the rule,” the gardens’ curator described the new find at the time.

The indictment said Kovach, transported, concealed and sold one or more protected orchid specimens, specifically of the genus Phragmipedium, commonly known as Tropical lady’s slipper orchids. Those species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Although the indictment says Kovach’s documents did not include the required permits for endangered plants, former Selby employee John Atwood said, “we were satisfied his paperwork was in order.”

According to an account Kovach wrote for an orchid collector newsletter, he spotted the new species at a roadside stand at a crossroads called El Progresso, near Myombomba in northern Peru.

Moore called it “the Holy Grail of orchids.” He said he advised Kovach to take the discovery to Selby without the special permits required to ship rare and endangered flowers across international borders.

Kovach flew to Miami with the orchid in his luggage and drove to Sarasota on June 5, 2002. There, according to the indictment, Selby employees “accepted one or more” specimens from Kovach and agreed to name it for him.

Information from: St. Petersburg Times, http://www.sptimes.com

Proving once again that flowers are not boring

Tampa Bay: A whiff of scandal:

The orchid was incredibly beautiful and exceedingly rare. But in its allure lay the seeds of destruction for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and those who were seduced by the lust for a flower.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
Published November 2, 2003

Orchidmain_1OrchidSARASOTA – Each year more than 160,000 people stroll through Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and are dazzled by its spectacular orchid collection, from showy Cattleyas to delicate Paphiopedilums.

But the most important orchid in Selby Gardens’ history is not on display.

It’s the one that could wreck the place.

When orchid collector Michael Kovach first spotted it at a roadside stand in Peru, he knew he had never seen anything like it: a tall stalk topped with a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a hot pink shading into deep purple.

As Kovach carried that dazzling flower into a roomful of Selby Gardens’ scientists in June 2002, he was greeted by “a simultaneous wave of eye-widening and mouth opening,” Kovach wrote in an orchid-collector newsletter.

Selby’s staff moved quickly to lay claim to the honor of naming the new orchid. Working around the clock, they cranked out a scientific description and published it in a special edition of Selby’s own journal.

At Kovach’s request, they named the plant after him: Phragmipedium kovachii. The announcement, hailed as one of the biggest orchid discoveries in 100 years, garnered international acclaim for the 13-acre institution on Sarasota Bay.

Making the triumph even sweeter was the fact that Selby had beaten into print a rival orchid expert who was on the verge of publishing his own scientific description of the new species.

But the taste of triumph soured. Peruvian officials lodged a formal complaint. Two months after he walked into Selby Gardens with the orchid, Kovach’s greenhouse in Virginia was raided by federal agents. They rooted through Selby Gardens’ records, too. A federal grand jury in Tampa has subpoenaed a dozen Selby employees and board members.

As the yearlong investigation draws to a close, Selby is likely to be charged with violating laws designed to protect endangered plants from poachers. Selby’s staff believes prosecutors will make an example of them to placate Peru, said Selby’s crisis management consultant, Jeffrey Tucker.

A criminal conviction could bring large fines and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money. Individuals could even face jail time. Attorneys’ fees already are squeezing the garden’s $3.2-million budget.

“It’s a real mess,” said Paul Martin Brown, author of Wild Orchids of Florida. “It tarnishes Selby’s reputation.”

* * *

The orchid scandal has so exacerbated tension among Selby’s leadership that the executive director and eight board members have resigned. Furious donors are withholding contributions.

Selby officials are “all kind of shocked at how they got into the middle of this,” Tucker said. They had nothing but the best of intentions, he said.

To Eric Christenson, the rival beaten by Selby, none of this is surprising. He says Selby’s staff should never have let Kovach in the door.

“These people are idiots,” he said. “Everyone involved knew it was illegal.”

How could so much trouble stem from a single flower? To Lee Moore the answer is obvious.

A veteran orchid collector whose business cards identify him as “The Adventurer,” Moore advised Kovach in Peru. He says Kovach’s craving for fame overrode concerns about legalities.

“Oh, the cost of fame,” said Moore, chuckling.

Kovach (pronounced KO-vack), 48, lives in rural Virginia. Once a carpenter, he says God led him to the orchid business.

It was a heavenly calling into a hellish obsession.

While most orchid fanciers are content with the selection at Home Depot, a few are willing to blow $10,000 on one plant or brave any hardship to discover a new species.

Orchid Fever author Eric Hansen blames the flowers’ sensual form. The tumescent blooms and intoxicating scent can cloud a collector’s judgment.

Driven by passion, some orchid fanciers would spend their last dime for a flower such as the one Kovach found.

“When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants,” Norman McDonald wrote in his 1939 book The Orchid Hunters. “It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine, it’s a sort of madness.”

But such madness may run afoul of the law. Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It prohibits collecting endangered plants in the wild for export. Trade is permitted only if the exporting country certifies the plants were grown in a nursery or laboratory.

Few orchid experts like the treaty’s rules, Brown said, and some would like to get rid of them. Thousands of orchids can be destroyed by a new road but collecting a few for scientific study can be nearly impossible.

One orchid expert, Guido Braeme, punched out a customs official who accused him of smuggling. Still, Braeme was fined because he had no export permit for an orchid preserved in alcohol since 1822.

According to Braeme, the rules are particularly maddening when the orchid is newly discovered. To get a permit to export it for study requires listing a name, but at that point there is no name.

“You smuggle or you cheat,” Braeme explained. “Legally you can’t win.”

Still, botanical gardens continue to describe new species from other countries, Braeme said, suggesting they were all “based on illegal plants.”

Christenson, Kovach’s rival who used to work for Selby, says he quit when he was ordered to write a grant proposal for propagating an illegally obtained orchid.

“Everyone treats it with a kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink,”

Christenson said. “This is what all botanical gardens are doing.”

Selby’s own rules require permits for plants shipped to its Orchid Identification Center. But so many orchids are sent to Selby “the Gardens does not require the submitters to provide documentation as to the sources of the plants,” center director Wesley Higgins wrote last year.

Moore says in all his years of shipping orchids to Selby, “nobody ever said boo about permits.”

So Moore says he advised Kovach to put his orchid in a suitcase and head for Selby without a permit.

“I know he’s supposed to have a permit . . . and he knows that very well, too,” Moore said. But Moore said he told Kovach: “Take the (expletive) thing up there to Selby. If you try for a permit, you’ll never get a permit.”

* * *

Moore has spent 25 years traipsing around South American jungles, collecting pre-Columbian art and new orchid species. Several are named for him.

In The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean quotes Moore’s Peruvian wife, Chady, as saying, “We were always smuggling something. . . . We had more going on, more situations than Indiana Jones! Oh, my God!”

The Moores live in Miami but are building a nursery near the Peruvian city of Moyobamba. In 1996, flying back to Miami, Moore met Kovach. They started talking orchids and friendship blossomed.

“He told me once, “Lee, you’re famous because you’ve got a lot of plants named for you. I wish I could have a plant named for me,” Moore recalled.

Last year, they agreed to rendezvous in Peru. In an orchid-collector newsletter published this summer, Kovach wrote that he went there to “discuss setting up a species production facility,” using the Moores’ nursery. He said they cut a deal. Moore denies it.

On May 26, 2002, Kovach hired the Moores’ driver to take him orchid hunting. About 3:30 p.m., Kovach wrote, they stopped at a place the map called El Progresso, actually just a truck stop.

Farmers were selling orchids in the parking lot. Kovach picked out a few from a young brother and sister. The woman offered to fetch some special plants from behind the building.

“She then quickly reappeared cradling three pots containing plants with large dark rose flowers,” Kovach wrote. “They appeared to be slipper orchids of some kind, but I’d never seen anything like this.”

Kovach says he bought all three for $3.60 each.

When Kovach showed them to his mentor later, Moore was stunned at their beauty. He remembered Kovach’s hankering to have an orchid named after him. He says he told Kovach, “This is your chance. You’ve got the Holy Grail of orchids.”

* * *

In the Garden of Eden, Adam named everything. These days it’s more complicated. There are strict rules on publishing new scientific names, and only certain taxonomists can do the naming.

The American Orchid Society’s list of approved taxonomists consists of just 23 experts, none in Peru. Last year, five were affiliated with Selby, more than any other botanical garden.

Selby’s experts knew about the orchid before Kovach arrived on June 5, 2002. A Texas grower had e-mailed them photos he had seen. They had also heard that Christenson had penned a description for Orchids magazine, to be published June 17.

Kovach wrote that Higgins, the center director, told him “a race for access to the plant had developed. He said it looked like I had won that race.” As a result, Selby beat Christenson into print by five days.

Christenson had wanted to name the new orchid Phragmipedium peruvianum as a salute to Peru. He based his description on photos that had been e-mailed to him by a Peruvian nursery owner, because all ladyslipper orchids are on a most-endangered list.

“Anyone with half a brain cell doesn’t go near them,” Christenson said. “They’re the pandas of the orchid world. . . . When somebody shows up with an orchid like that, you either quietly tell them to go away or you call the cops.”

Selby’s experts did neither. Kovach’s newsletter account makes no mention of anyone asking him for permits. But in a December 2002 letter to federal authorities, Selby’s attorney wrote: “Kovach advised Selby Gardens staff that he had legally imported the orchid into the United States and subsequently provided Selby Gardens with certain USDA permits and Peruvian certificates to support them.”

After Selby’s scientists accepted Kovach’s flower they asked him what to call it, and he told them to use his name.

“I thought, well why not? I’ve worked long and hard; it can’t hurt,” Kovach wrote.

Christenson says naming it kovachii was tantamount to saying, “Hey, come arrest me!”

Three months later U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers raided Kovach’s greenhouse. Then they hit Selby with a grand jury subpoena.

Kovach contends he didn’t need a permit because he wasn’t transporting the orchid for commercial purposes, an argument experts don’t buy.

“His claim is nonsense,” said Ned Nash of the American Orchid Society.

Selby’s legal problems are more complicated.

Kovach left the orchid at Selby Gardens. After Selby’s scientists finished, they shipped it to a museum in Peru without a permit.

“In the strictest sense of the word, they broke the law,” Nash said.

They also did not send back the entire plant.

As the scientists stood around Kovach’s orchid “it began striking everyone that this was the last they were going to see of this,” said Tucker, Selby’s consultant. “It was taken from a high altitude in Peru and it was not going to survive in Sarasota. And someone said, “Why kill the last condor?’ ”

So one Selby expert, John Atwood, took a piece to his home in Vermont to see if it would grow, Tucker said. Federal officials have now confiscated it.

Selby officials were caught off guard by the investigation. Then-director Meg Lowman, a rain forest biologist who wrote a critically acclaimed memoir called Life in the Trees, was not even in town when Kovach showed up with his orchid.

But she became the orchid’s first casualty.

For two years Lowman was the target of repeated sniping from Selby’s chairman, a prominent orchid grower named Bob Scully who four years ago was banned from Selby’s greenhouses over complaints of sexual harassment and other problems.

According to Lowman’s attorney, Robert Rivas, Scully was informed by Selby’s experts about Kovach’s orchid the day after it arrived, and he “enthusiastically endorsed” rushing the news into print, even meeting with the orchid experts to discuss it.

When Selby’s board learned of the federal investigation, board members asked Scully to deal with it, said former board member Bob Richardson.

“We were always hopeful this thing was going to blow away,” Richardson said. “It just kept escalating as time went on.”

Tension among board members escalated, too. For Richardson, the last straw came when “we were sitting in a meeting with the board and Scully was saying he thought Meg hadn’t told the truth about what happened.”

Richardson quit. He had pledged $100,000 to Selby, but plans to give it to Lowman for her legal defense. Then Lowman was forced out, along with board members who supported her. Several have vowed to withhold donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In Peru, the government posted fliers in the airports warning against smuggling the new orchid. But collectors stripped the site where Kovach’s three plants came from, and the plants are selling for $1,000 each in Europe, said Harold Koopowitz, editor of Orchid Digest.

Five months ago, though, Koopowitz saw 1,000 more growing on a remote cliff in the Andes. Their best protection is their location. Getting to them, Koopowitz wrote, required making what he called “the hike from hell.”

One person who hopes to profit from this is The Adventurer. When Kovach flew to Selby he left two of his orchids with Moore, who later paid local farmers to gather about 200 more for his nursery. The Moores now await the day when trade in them will be legal and lucrative.

Most people connected to the case declined to comment. Kovach, who initially was talking to the New York Times, Washington Post and People, now refuses all interview requests as he awaits the grand jury’s decision.

“My life is ruined,” he told People. “The bottom line is, it’s just a flower. Everybody’s lost their mind.”

   – Times staff writers Graham Brink and David Adams and researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.