Phrag. Kovachii Mop-Up News

Orchid_3
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.

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: Khou.com, 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.

An Orchid Super-Hero Responds….

In the midst of the Orchid Guide Forum dust-up, the extraordinary Oliver Sparrow responds with dizzying logic and sanity to frenzied finger-pointing over the stripping of Phrag. Kovachii from the wild:

Shame on the Peruvian government! Shame on the collectors! When are they going to pay?? What they did is far worse then what Selby did. Why is there no call for their collective heads (including the Peruvian officials who are complicit in their lack of action)?

Oliver’s response:

I carry no torch for the Peruvian government, but I happen to have a team in Peru writing a guide book to its wild places, so we do have some insight. To quote our introduction:

“…A more detailed assessment shows how extraordinarily diverse Peru actually is. International convention divides the world into various types of ecosystem. There are, altogether, just over a hundred of these that are recognised by science. With only minor straining, no less than 84 of these can be found in Peru!

Recent studies of the World’s biodiversity hot-spots place at least five of these in Peru. In particular, the Tambopata and Manu regions possess two of the most diverse flora and fauna forests in the world.The Pongo de Mainique Canyon on the Urubamba River is alleged to be the most biodiverse area on Earth’s surface. It is, however, a relatively accessible area and so has been studied with more intensity than the backwoods. There may well be more diverse regions elsewhere. […]

Peru has the fourth largest expanse of primary forest in the world. As with most primary tropical forests, this is extremely species-rich, with up to two hundred different kinds of large tree cramming themselves into a hectare of forest. […] Peru and Ecuador are the heartland of a range of mist-forest and other orchid genera. The ceja de selva [montane forest] is particularly rich in these plants in areas where rock breaks forest into a myriad of patches. However, the are epiphytic orchids growing to 3800m, probably a world record. At least two species of cactus grow under snow cover at 4500m. There is an extraordinary diversity of medicinal plants, all readily available from market stalls. At least five narcotic plants grow in Peru – the coca shrub, the three plants used in the ayahuasca brew, the hallucinogen cactus known as el cactus de San Pedro – and probably many more. ”

My point – that there is a lot to protect. Peru has around 30 reserves, parks and the like, many essentially abandoned for want of funds. I visited the San Martin centre last year, and found the staff both unpaid and without fuel to patrol their area. Set against this, the drugs industry was still very active in the area.

But should Peru not fund its wildlife protection better? Average per capita income buys what about $4500 buys in the US, per annum. That puts it on a par with nations such as the following: Albania Algeria Cuba Egypt Guatemala Honduras Iran Jordan Morocco Romania.

The country is recovering from the disasters of the 1983-94 period, when the war against the Sendero and economic mismanagement brought the country to deep crisis. There was a further crisis of climate and institutions at the turn of the century and there are still many millions of needy people, displaced into shack-cities on the coastal desert, malfunctioning industry and problems of collecting due taxes.

Excuse the length of this. The point that I want to get across is that priorities in such nations are extremely focused, and a minor botanical detail cannot expect much attention. Equally, the lesson to take from this is that what is tractable to conservation in low income countries is, at best, habitats and not species. Something which lunatic foreigners will pay a year’s income to acquire, and which will fit into a small suitcase, is virtually impossible to protect, notably in a nation which has a vast industry entrained in shipping illegal cocaine paste (and now opium balls) North. Better by far manage this by making the object of desire – plant, parrot or shell – available to collector gluttony through breeding programs, legal export and so forth. Better to focus state efforts on keeping habitats from being logged, farmed or simply trashed through general erosion.

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Oliver Sparrow

Selby formally pleads guilty

“Selby Botanical Gardens of Sarasota and one of its top scientists formally pleaded guilty Tuesday… “

“Leaders of the popular nonprofit botanical gardens on the bayfront also must run a full-page ad in The American Orchid Society magazine to apologize, send letters to other botanical institutions to tell them how Selby broke the law, and petition the International Botanical Congress to change the name they gave the flower, Phragmipedium kovachii. ”

Article:

Selby pleads guilty in scandal over orchid
Herald Tribune

STAFF REPORT

TAMPA — Selby Botanical Gardens of Sarasota and one of its top scientists formally pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting and handling a rare orchid the federal government says was smuggled in from Peru.

The plea agreement would mean the gardens will pay a $5,000 fine and must submit to three years’ probation for the misdemeanor charge under the Endangered Species Act.

Leaders of the popular nonprofit botanical gardens on the bayfront also must run a full-page ad in The American Orchid Society magazine to apologize, send letters to other botanical institutions to tell them how Selby broke the law, and petition the International Botanical Congress to change the name they gave the flower, Phragmipedium kovachii.

Barbara Hansen, the chairwoman of Selby’s board of trustees, agreed to the plea deal. She was ill and left without comment immediately after the proceedings in U.S. Magistrate Thomas G. Wilson’s courtroom.

Selby horticulturist Wesley E. Higgins agreed to a plea deal specifying house arrest for six months, probation for a year, and a $2,000 fine. He declined to comment.

Tuesday’s courtroom action merely formalized an agreement reached in December, and settled months of negotiations with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice.

A judge is expected to rule on the plea deals at a sentencing hearing in about 75 days. The plea deals were just a recommendation to the court, which could impose harsher penalties.

Also charged in the case was James Michael Kovach, the Virginia nursery owner who brought the orchid to Selby in June 2002 and was indicted in November on charges of possessing the plant and smuggling it into this country. He is scheduled to appear in court next week.