Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News

Finally, the last of the mopping up of the Phragmipedium Kovachii debacle. Last January I reported that Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and its top horticulturalist, Wesley Higgins (head of the orchid identification center) had to take their licks for their role in smuggling a specimen of this new discovery into the U.S. to be identified. The government of Peru and former Selby employee Eric Christenson, were already in the process of identifying what’s been described as the greatest orchid discovery of the last 100 years. But Selby beat them to it, thereby pissing off a lot of people.

Michael Kovachs actually got off fairly lightly, with two year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Merryday, of Tampa, told Kovach, of Goldvein, Va., he narrowly escaped doing prison time.

"I’m resolving some doubts in your favor owing to your status as a
first offender," Merryday said. "But some of your explanations here are
very nearly, ‘The dog ate my homework.’"

Sadly, George Norris — who got caught in the crossfire — did get prison time. Rabid U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials, on the hunt for illegal importers of Phrag. Kovachii, caught George in a scheme to fudge paperwork on other, artificially propagated, orchids. They figured he was trading in Phrag. Kovachii because his supplier was one of three growers in Peru with a legal permit to cultivate them. Nope. But he was an easy fall guy — elderly, bellicose, and unable to afford a good lawyer, apparently.

As for the fabulous orchid, it was stripped from the wild by poachers as soon as word got out that it existed.

Eric Hansen, who wrote Orchid Fever, "An extraordinary, well-told tale of botany, obsession, and plant politics" (U.S.A. Today), may want to start thinking about that sequel.

Continue reading “Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News”

Martha Ain’t the Only One

Well, the verdict is in, and George Norris got jail time:

Flower Dealer Get 17 Months for Smuggling

MIAMI —  An orchid dealer was sentenced Wednesday to a year and five months in federal prison for scheming to smuggle prized tropical lady slipper orchids into the United States.

George W. Norris of Spring, Texas, was also sentenced to two years probation. Co-defendant Manuel Arias Silva, a Peruvian orchid grower, pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced in July to a year and nine months in prison.

Norris instructed Arias to ship through south Florida because federal inspectors at Miami International Airport were more lax than their counterparts in Houston, according to papers and e-mails seized in the investigation.

The investigation was based on a tip about Norris offering endangered species for sale on the Internet.

The Peruvian lady slippers are considered seriously endangered in the wild and are protected by international treaty. Nursery-raised varieties can be exported with government permits.

Norris and Arias used invalid permits for the shipments and falsely labeled many of the plants to cover up the lack of a valid permit, prosecutors said.

The forums are silent so far. It would be interesting to know if any new evidence came out of the court proceedings, or if in fact it’s just another example of the American justice system’s overenthusiasm for incarceration. Is there anyone left on the outside in that country? Well, I’m very sorry for Mr. Norris and  Mr. Arias. They made a mistake by trying to take some short cuts to get around nonsensical regulations (endangered species? always read the news with a healthy dose of scepticism). I hope the feds are pursuing real poachers with the same enthusiasm.

What it takes to keep a species alive

An article in The Australian describes the high secrecy and scope of effort required to save a native orchid species from extinction — from both poachers, and noxious weeds that are choking them out:

Volunteers in orchid rescue
Rebecca DiGirolamo – October 04, 2004

IN secret locations across the Adelaide Hills, hundreds of volunteers work by stealth clearing pockets of native bush to carefully preserve a fragile native orchid teetering on the brink of extinction.

They have spent more than 700 hours removing noxious weeds that threaten the largest population of Leafy Greenhood orchids found in South Australia.

So vulnerable is the remnant stock of about 11,000 Leafy Greenhoods (Pterostylis cucullata – ed) that a management dossier mapping their location at four sites in the Mt Lofty Ranges is kept under lock and key after an entire population was pilfered by collectors back in the 1980s.

“Fifty years ago the Adelaide Hills had many, many more orchids, and people used to pick them in bunches,” said volunteer Jenny Skinner.

“But what they didn’t know was that the orchids don’t transplant well and they wilt when picked.”

The bulk of the vulnerable species, also found in declining numbers in Tasmania and Victoria, is spread across six sub-populations in the Belair National Park near Adelaide.

While illegal collectors are a danger, the biggest threat is exotic weeds competing for native bushland and urban development, with a golf course and shopping centre destroying two populations.

“Four populations have become extinct due to weed invasion in recent times,” said ecologist Tim Jury.

Mr Jury leads the orchid action group and so far the group has restored two sub-populations. “They are recovering but more work needs to be done,” Mr Jury said.

Ms Skinner said she eagerly awaited the brief flowering of the orchid around September each year but the battle continued to ensure the plant’s survival.

I wonder what goes on in the mind of people who poach. Obviously, they are concerned only for their own profit, regardless of whether the source of their profit is exterminated by their actions. Are they stupid? Are they psychopaths? I don’t get it. It reminds me of the story of the lunatic bird hunters in Malta. When news got around the island that one last nesting pair of Maltese Falcons was nesting on the Hunterisland7_1cliffs, the race was on to catch and kill them. In their teenie little brains, hunters were determined to bag the birds because if they didn’t, somebody else would get ’em anyway.

One of the most spectacular of the greenhood orchids, the endangered leafy greenhood Pterostylis cucullata.This amazing, ancient plant was thought to be lost to science until rediscovered on Hunter Island, near Tasmania, in about 1970. The leafy greenhood grows only along the very old (Holocene) sand dunes that transverse certain sections of the island.

Norris Orchid Saga continues

I’ve written extensively here about the drama surrounding George Norris and Manuel Arias Silva’s troubles with the law. Both are elderly and in ill health, and from what I can gather from those “in the know”, they are not big bad orchid smugglers guilty of stripping the wild of rare orchids species, but victims of a complicated web of petty politics, egos, and treachery. Oh, and of their own frustration with nonsensical CITES laws. Apparently, the orchids they “smuggled” were not rare, and were removed from the list of prohibited trade species after their shenanigans. The question remains as to whether the plants in question were collected from the wild, or cultivated at Jose’s nursery in Peru.

Orchid smuggler from Spring gets prison time

03:17 PM CDT on Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Associated Press

MIAMI — A prominent Peruvian orchid grower was sentenced Tuesday to almost two years in federal prison for scheming to smuggle prized tropical lady slipper orchids into the United States.

Manuel Arias Silva will spend one year and nine months in prison for shipping internationally protected wild orchids intermingled with nursery-raised flowers to a Texas dealer several times to feed the desires of high-end hobbyists from 1999 to last year.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz sentenced Arias to the low end of the federal guidelines on his guilty plea to two counts. He admitted shipping 2,050 orchids, including the endangered Phragmipedium species, worth $45,500 from Peru through Miami to suburban Houston.

“Judge Seitz did the best and the fairest she could under the circumstances,” said defense attorney Peter Raben.

The dealer, George W. Norris of Spring, Texas, also has pleaded guilty and faces sentencing Sept. 2. The investigation was based on a tip about Norris offering endangered species for sale on the Internet.

Norris instructed Arias to ship through South Florida because U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at Miami International Airport were more lax than their counterparts in Houston, according to papers and e-mails seized in the investigation.

Arias, 70, was one of three Peruvian growers with permission to cultivate endangered and newly discovered orchids from recently deforested areas. He apologized in a letter to the judge asking for mercy and noting his “sincere” conservation efforts.

The Peruvian lady slippers, known as “phrags” in collecting circles, are considered seriously endangered in the wild and are protected by international treaty. Nursery-raised varieties can be exported with government permits.


Link:, news for Houston, Texas

This post contains an interesting quote from someone who personally knows the Manuel Arias Silva. She says that he is an honourable gentleman, 70 years old and in extremely ill health, who could not speak the language and had a wife at home in Peru who had just undergone a serious operation. Given the situation, he was anxious to plead guilty to whatever the authorities wanted, just to get back home. He has not returned to the U.S., so it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. tries to extradite him and force him to serve his jail term.

American Justice

This is sad…. George Norris (see my post of March 30th for the background story) has pleaded guilty to smuggling orchids into the U.S., no doubt because he is old, in ill health, and couldn’t afford the legal fees to fight the charges. The article makes him out to be a bad guy, but, unless there’s some shocking new evidence, he’s just a crusty old guy who tried to take a short-cut to get around some (universally agreed) nonsensical CITES import rules. Now he faces up to 5 years in jail for each of the seven counts, as well as huge fines.

Texan pleaded guilty to orchid smuggling charges

The forums are overpoweringly silent on the subject, so far. In a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped, the Orchid Source Forum has moved all conversation regarding George’s case to a password-protected area, so that he can vent his spleen in semi-private. I’m sure his online piss and vinegar on the Orchid Source Forum didn’t win him any friends with the US Fish & Game people.

What’s sad is that I remember George as a loud right-wing supporter of the Bush Administration, the invasion of Iraq — patriotic to the point of arrogance, quick to take offence at any seeming slight of his beloved country and government. All this on an orchid forum!!! I take no pleasure in seeing how this proud man has been reduced, humiliated, and betrayed by a system and country he so loves. Bad news.

Controversy over orchid settled with guilty plea

Finally, this is settled! Lots of politics involved in this one, but I guess the fellow just wanted to get it over with.

Facing felony charges in a smuggling case involving Selby Botanical Gardens, Michael Kovach pleads guilty to lesser charges.


Controversy over orchid settled with guilty plea

Facing felony charges in a smuggling case involving Selby Botanical Gardens, Michael Kovach pleads guilty to lesser charges.

Published June 11, 2004

TAMPA – Two months after Michael Kovach discovered a rare Peruvian orchid, armed federal agents showed up at his door in Virginia.

In what quickly escalated into an international controversy, the New York Times, Washington Post and People magazine wrote about how Kovach could wind up behind bars for smuggling the protected flower into Miami.

On Thursday morning, in a nearly empty federal courtroom, Kovach pleaded guilty to reduced charges, and the judge overseeing the hearing suggested he might avoid prison altogether.

Kovach, who has criticized federal wildlife officials for prosecuting him as a smuggler, told the judge he just wanted to get the matter settled.

“There’s a lot of questions about this case in my mind, but it’s resolution time,” Kovach told U.S. Magistrate Judge Stanley Wilson.

Kovach had originally been indicted on a felony count of smuggling an endangered species and a misdemeanor count of illegal possession of an endangered species.

In exchange for his guilty plea, the U.S. Justice Department reduced the felony to a misdemeanor count of illegal trade.

Wilson, in discussing sentencing options during the hourlong hearing in Tampa federal court, suggested Kovach might wind up on probation instead of in jail.

No sentencing date has been set. The misdemeanor charges each carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

The ladyslipper orchid at the center of the case carries Kovach’s name, at least for now. Kovach, an orchid collector from Goldvein, Va., found the dazzling flower at a roadside stand at a rural crossroads named El Progresso in the Andes Mountains in late May 2002.

The Peruvian vendor “said they had something in the back, and brought this out,” Kovach told the judge. “I wasn’t sure at first what it was. It was too big, too colorful. It didn’t fit the description of other orchids in that family.”

The ladyslipper Kovach bought that day was one that had never been named by scientists. His discovery had a bloom as big as a man’s hand, its petals a dramatic pink shading into deep purple. He paid $3.60 for three of them.

Later Kovach showed the flower to his mentor, orchid collector Lee Moore, who told him “you’ve got the Holy Grail of orchids.”

Kovach gave Moore two of the orchids and stashed the third in his suitcase for a flight to Miami.

That’s where he got into trouble.

Wild orchids are protected by an international treaty, 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.

All ladyslipper orchids are on the treaty’s most-endangered list. Moore, in an e-mail Thursday to Kovach and Kovach’s attorney, Bob Hearn, wrote that there was no getting around the fact that Kovach had recognized the flower as a ladyslipper.

During Thursday’s hearing, though, Kovach told the judge that he was “under a mistaken impression” that he did not need a permit for an orchid that had not yet been officially named. He also blamed his lack of fluency in Spanish.

On June 4, 2002, Kovach showed up at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby’s stunned orchid experts agreed to publish a scientific description of his flower, naming it Phragmipedium kovachii.

Orchid expert Eric Christenson, a former Selby employee, said sticking Kovach’s name on the plant was tantamount to telling federal authorities, “Hey, come arrest me!”

Sure enough, Peruvian authorities complained that Kovach had failed to get the proper permits, and in August 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service searched both Kovach’s nursery and Selby Gardens. Federal agents also confiscated a piece of Kovach’s plant that one of Selby’s experts had taken home to Vermont to try to get it to take root.

After a yearlong investigation, a Tampa grand jury indicted Kovach in November 2003. Two months later, federal officials also charged Selby Gardens and one of its orchid experts, Wesley Higgins, with illegally possessing the ladyslipper.

Selby, the first botanical garden ever charged with a federal wildlife crime, pleaded guilty and agreed three years’ probation and a $5,000 fine.

Selby had to take out a full-page ad in an orchid magazine apologizing for its role in the case. And Selby officials had to write to the international body in charge of scientific names for species, urging that Kovach’s name be taken off the orchid.

So far there has been no response to that letter, a Selby spokeswoman said Thursday.

Higgins, of Cape Coral, also pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and serve two years of probation, six months of it on home detention.

– Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.