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.

Online Orchid Drama Eclipses Reality TV…

George Norris, a crusty old orchid grower from Texas, has yet again found himself squarely in the sights of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

George, along with his business associate Peruvian grower Manuel Arias-Silver, is charged with conspiracy to smuggle endangered phragmipediums (orchids) into the U.S. Since Manuel is one of only three growers to have been given permission by the Peruvian government to artificially propagate the newly discovered phragmipedium Kovachii, it appears that the U.S. government has singled out the pair for special attention over suspicions that this is the species they were smuggling. There appears to be little evidence of this, though it is likely the pair were taking some shortcuts on paperwork because of the challenges of importing other, legally propagated species, into the U.S.

In the orchid world, the CITES treaty is almost universally denounced; the charge is that it does nothing to stop habitat destruction, and actually encourages illegal smuggling of wild-collected plants because the regulations make it so difficult to trade in artifically-propagated specimens.

George originally found himself in his government’s crosshairs last year, after sending out a newsletter to his customers mentioning the Peruvian government’s decision to allow three respected Peruvian growers to propogate the orchids, raising the possibility that they would be available legally for sale in the United States within the next few years. Considering that his information came directly from Manuel, with whom he had done business many times, the newsletter reference was not unreasonable. However, Eric Christenson, the taxonomist who was still severely disgruntled over losing the race to name the species, was one of the recipients of the newsletter. He forwarded the message on to the F&WS suggesting they investigate the “rumours”. A couple of months later, the F&WS raided George Norris’ greenhouse. Then, Manuel was arrested by authorities on his way to a major international orchid show in Miami on March 5th. The F&WS, strongly criticised by the orchid community for their heavy-handed tactics, released the contents of private email they secretly intercepted between the two men to the media, in an apparent attempt to garner favourable public opinion.

Support continues to be strong for George and Manuel, but the situation looks grim for the two men. An outspoken and “patriotic American”, George’s growing sense of betrayal and disillusionment with his beloved right-wing government has been painful to behold. The obvious stress is taking it’s toll, resulting in a particularly spectacular flame-war on the Orchid Guide Digest list between Eric Christenson (“I will begin immediate legal action against [the Orchid Digest List] for allowing this filth on your website”) and George Norris (accusing Eric of hot air and eating too many Krispy Kremes). It’s an online version of the worst kind of reality TV, kind of like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.

Then, just when the name-calling and threats were threatening to take over the entire tone of discussion, along comes Oliver Sparrow to the rescue, like the orchid super-hero he is….

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.

_____________________________________
Oliver Sparrow

New Zealand Orchid Poachers Avoid Jail

The two Czech men who attempted to smuggle native orchids out of New Zealand have avoided jail, but have found themselves saddled with “hefty” fines of $7500 plus court costs.

My first reaction was that the fines are not particularly “hefty”, but consider this: One, a cardiologist and university dean, makes $39,000 a year in his native Czechoslovakia and has savings of $9000. The other, a Czech Government environmental protection agency inspector and Orchid society president (can you believe it??) earns $24,000 and has savings of $8000. Remind me not to seek my fortunes in Czechoslovakia.

Though one would assume from their careers that they possess a certain degree of smarts, it turns out that these two arrogant and bumbling idiots are not the brightest light bulbs in the pack:

“Before they arrived in New Zealand they had sent the DoC (Department of Conservation) an e-mail outlining their trip and asking permission to take the orchids. That request was refused and to take the plants after that was a deliberate act. “

No means no, fellas! But it was nice of you to announce your intentions — the natural world would be much easier to defend if all poachers were as accommodating.

Article – The New Zealand Herald

Heavy fine for orchid pilferers a strong message says DOC

27.02.2004

Heavy fines for two Czech men who tried to “pilfer” New Zealand native plants out of the country, sent a very strong message to the international community a Department of Conservation investigator said today.

The two men, cardiologist Cestmir Cihalik, 54, Czech Government environmental protection agency inspector, Jindrich Smitak, 60, were caught with a large haul of native plants, including orchids, as they tried to leave from Auckland airport in January.

It was the first time anyone had been charged with trading in threatened New Zealand orchids.

They appeared in the Manukau District Court today for sentencing but received a heavy fine and not the prison sentence sought as an international deterrent by DoC prosecutor Mike Bodie.

However, Judge Sharon McAuslan said it would be wrong to discharge the two men without conviction as sought by their lawyer Colleen Newton.

She ordered the two men to be held in custody until their $7500 fine had been paid and said if it was not paid immediately they would serve 21 days in prison.

They were also ordered to pay $1000 towards the cost of the DoC prosecution and $130 in court costs.

Cihalik had 40 plants in his luggage, comprising 15 native orchid species, and Smitak had 18 species of native orchids, comprising 43 individual plants.

The judge accepted submissions from Ms Newton the two men were keen amateur botanists and their trip to New Zealand was a scientific trip and they did not take the plants, all protected under the Trade in
Endangered Species Act, for commercial gain.

However, outside court, DoC investigator Toni Twyford, said the men knew what they were doing and knew they should not have taken the plants.

Before they arrived in New Zealand they had sent DoC an e-mail outlining their trip and asking permission to take the orchids. That request was refused and to take the plants after that was a deliberate act.

Mr Twyford would not comment on the techniques used to track the men before they were arrested.

“It would be fair to say we kept an eye on their movements to a certain extent. How much we did that I wouldn’t like to make any further comment on.”

Not would Mr Twyford say if the men were actually seen taking any plants nor if DoC had intelligence from overseas agencies about their activities before they came to New Zealand and were arrested.

During today’s sentencing Mr Bodie said although the orchids were relatively common in New Zealand and were not rare or endangered, they were endemic to New Zealand and in danger from people.

He submitted both men had a carefully prepared, premeditated plan to take the plants out of the country.

He said a prison term was the most effective deterrent.

“We may take them for granted but for a European collector it is a long way to come for a so-called common orchid,” he told the court.

He said to remove plants from national parks was “unacceptable for New Zealanders let alone foreign visitors to our shores”.

Ms Newton said the to men had suffered because of the publicity in New Zealand, in their home country. They had cooperated with the authorities and had pleaded guilty although they had originally not intended to do anything wrong.

Cihalik earned $39,000 a year in his native Czech Republic and had savings of $9000. Smitak earned $24,000 and had savings of $8000. The savings of both men was available to the New Zealand courts, Ms Newton
said.

The judge said deterrence must be a significant part of the sentence but mitigating factors included their guilty pleas, that it was a scientific and academic trip and not done for commercial gain. She said because of that a financial penalty and not a jail term was appropriate.

Smitak also faced three charges of taking plants from the Mt Aspiring, Nelson Lakes and Fiordland national parks and was convicted and discharged.

– NZPA

Orchid Smuggling Drama in New Zealand

More details are coming out about the case of the two orchid smugglers recently arrested in New Zealand, and the story is quite interesting.

“Dr. Ian St George, convenor of the New Zealand native orchid group, said word had gone out on their “amateur grapevine” about a suspicious pair of orchid hunters asking to be guided to the flowers since before Christmas. Members were asked not to do so.

Dr St George said there were about 150 native orchids, with about 20 that were “vanishingly rare”.

One,  known as either Corybas or Anzybas Carsei could be found only in one Waikato swamp which he refused to name. Known as the Swamp Helmet, it is about the size of a fingernail, completely dark maroon and is described by Dr St George as “the closest we have to an All Black orchid”. It would be too hard for them to find, given only one man knew the way through waist-deep bog and it was only in flower for two weeks of the year in September.

He had not seen it himself and it has been rarely photographed.

…The type of orchids the men had allegedly smuggled would be a strong pointer to whether any smugglers had received local help. He would be “absolutely disgusted” if they had. “

The two men are from Czechoslovakia, and they are no ordinary common thiefs:

“…Cihalik is dean of the medicine school at the 430-year-old Palacky University in Olomouc. … (He) is a cardiologist specialising in the electrophysiological activity of the heart. He is the author of an extensive electrocardiogram atlas. He is married to a researcher of botanical genetics. His two adult sons are art historians involved in the conservation of cultural monuments.

Smitak is a public servant from Brno, 78km southeast of Olomouc.There he is the chairman of the Society of Tropical Orchid Growers and of the Friends of European Wild Orchids.

The pair have surrendered their passports as part of their bail conditions. “

Underworld flower economy

In Canada, the only flower that seems to make the news for bootlegging and underworld connections is off the top of a marijuana plant. Russia, a country I associate with the baddest of the bad in organized crime, are busy fighting smugglers of roses, tulips, and chrysanthemums. Go figure!

“Operatives of the economic crime department carried out an operation in the Moscow region, seizing two truckloads of flowers worth 600 thousand dollars.

Investigators have ascertained that roses, chrysanthemums and tulips had been shipped to a reloading point in Lithuania and then transported to Russia.

The smugglers tripped to one of warehouses outside Moscow, from which  businesses delivered the flowers to Moscow’s markets.

According to investigators, the group, which operated for years, registered the businesses through fronts. The sham companies usually disappeared after a month of operation.

Two nationals of Lithuania and four Russians have been detained in  this criminal case and charged with contraband.

Investigators do not rule out the smugglers operated hand in hand with  corrupt customs officials. “

Looting in New Zealand

Trampers and hunters are being asked to help authorities stop the smuggling overseas of New Zealand’s protected wildlife.

“Two Czech men were charged yesterday with taking numerous native orchids and plants from New Zealand national parks and smuggling them out of the country. If found guilty, they face fines of up to $100,000 and/or five years’ jail.

Environmental watchdogs applauded the arrests and said charges relating to the smuggling of flowers and plants were rare. New Zealand has about 35 threatened species of orchids.”