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Illegal Wildlife Trade: Sale of Restricted Wild Orchids Goes Unchallenged in Southeast Asia, Say Researchers

Sep 17, 2015 04:51 PM EDT
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Awareness about the illegal trade of tiger parts and elephant ivory has gained significant traction over the last decase but that's not the case with wild ornamental plants such as orchids which are being sold on the Southeast Asia's black markets. Dr. Jacob Phelps, of the National University of Singapore (NUS), recently explored wildlife markets throughout Thailand and found that more than 400 species of prized plants are being sold illegally.  

"We first visited some of these wild plant markets in Thailand almost 10 years ago and were amazed by the volume and number of species being traded then. We knew we had to come back to learn more about what was being traded," Phelps said in a news release.

Phelps, along with Edward L. Webb, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at NUS, conducted interviews with traders and market owners to find out where they were getting their plants of which 80 percent, they discovered, were wild orchids.

Even though there are strict restrictions regarding the international trade of orchids that have been set in place by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the markets are obtaining their plants from neighboring countries. Even worse, researchers noted that the government-reported trade of illegal plants grossly underestimates the volumes they observed.

"In this case, we've simply turned a blind eye to plant trade and botanical conservation," Phelps said in a statement. "This research highlights a common problem in the illegal wildlife trade -- the invisibility of trades that have not been researched and are not recognized in official government databases."

Researchers recommend that more serious efforts need to be made to conserve Southeast Asia's botanical diversity.

"For many people, plants simply fail to garner our concern and affection in the way that many animals do. While we increasingly hear about the illegal trade of elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts, few people will have heard about the illegal trade in hundreds of plant species for horticulture and medicine. Yet, commercial illegal trade is an immediate threat to the conservation of hundreds, if not thousands, of plant species in our region," Webb said.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Biological Conservation

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