The illegal trade of plants and the CITES

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There are five times more plant species listed in CITES than animal species; they should not be neglected. Plants have a particular feature in that they can be infinitely duplicated by gardeners. But it is in the wild that they are the most threatened, by deforestation, industrial development, pollution, and agriculture as much as by the illegal harvesting done to satisfy collectors, who, though often well-intentioned, are putting passion ahead of the conservation of entire ecosystems.

The sensuality of an exceptiona l flower

Beautiful, fabulously complex and luscious, orchids are one of the world’s most advanced plant. Unusual and timeless, orchids can be found in the most inhospitable places on the planet. This incredible strength also gives them a rare longevity. Admired for their beauty, orchids show a great diversity— Orchidaceae are the largest family of flowering plants, with about 30,000 species of orchids in the wild.

These flowers once considered very difficult plants to maintain and to get to blossom again are now accessible to amateurs and neophytes. A robust orchid that will flower for several months and may blossom again is now worth the same as a bouquet that can fade within a week. However, many of them are threatened, endangered or already extinct due to habitat destruction and illegal harvesting, but also because of the greed of collectors.

Illegal trafficking of orchids

In January 2006, Dr Sian Lim, renowned researcher in charge of research and development for a large pharmaceutical company, was arrested. According to The Independent, Lim had tried to illegally import to Britain many orchid specimens from his native Malaysia, some belonging to endangered species. Customs officers examining the spoils discovered on that day that 126 of the confiscated flowers were Lady’s slipper orchids (genus Paphiopedilum), which originate mainly from South-East Asia and are highly sought after. Dr. Lim would subsequently be sentenced to four months in prison for plant trafficking, since Paphiopedilum plants are now protected by CITES, and their trade prohibited.

Lovers in search of unique specimens are indeed at the root of a growing illegal trade in orchids. For collectors, nothing compares to a rare orchid taken in the wild. Some collectors travel to tropical countries themselves to find their desired specimen, while others hire professionals. The flowers are harvested in the wild and later hidden in suitcases, in the back of cars, or in secret compartments in commercial containers. Often, traffickers declare the plants under another (false) designation, since species identification is very difficult for the uninitiated. They then join the private collections of the wealthiest orchid amateurs.

An Internationa l trade

Plants are special in that they can be duplicated by gardeners by cutting, a simple and ancestral technique that allows for multiplying the specimens of an identical plant, keeping the same genome for all descendants—cloning. Thousands of identical specimens can thus be created from a single flower.

Modern nurseries can reproduce the temperature, humidity and wider conditions that orchids need to grow, and can therefore engage in large-scale production, tens of millions of plants annually in the case of the large companies. On the other hand, in their constant search for new species, collectors do not hesitate to create hybrids by crossing known species to create a new one. There now exist more than 60,000 types of such hybrid orchids in the world. However, this abundance comes in contrast with the situation of wild specimens, some of which are extremely rare.

Hence, those tend to reach much higher values than specimens cloned in a lab. In 2002 in Peru, a collector discovered the species Phragmipedium kovachii on a roadside and took it out of the country illegally to identify and name it. Now, illegally collected Phragmipedium kovachii specimens are said to be traded for up to $10,000 per unit, while the nursery specimens are only worth tens of dollars.

Threatened plants

When the topic of endangered species comes up, we tend to think of great mammals like polar bears or pandas first. But there are plenty of endangered plants, and not just orchids. CITES lists five times more plant species than animal species.

Industrial development, air and water pollution, agriculture, grazing, deforestation for timber and fuel, and illegal harvesting are the most serious issues plants face.

All the species of orchids are listed in CITES Appendices, and alone, they represent the largest number of controlled species, including both flora and fauna. With the right permit, the orchids listed in Annex II may be marketed, whether from the wild or nurserygrown. CITES controls apply to plants both living or dead, and to any easily identifiable plant part or product: the Convention can also affect seeds, cuttings and leaves.

If it isn’t you, then it is your brother

Because they are frequently indistinguishable from species harvested from the wild, cloned species and hybrids, either identical or physically and physiologically very similar to endangered species, are also affected. Placed side by side, the artificially produced clone of a plant cannot be distinguished from a wild specimen. As for the hybrid of two plants, it is often impossible to detect if it is the offspring of legally or illegally imported species.

In April 2002, Bangkok airport inspectors seized a shipment of orchids consisting of 320 specimens (Dendrobium tenellum, Phalaenopsis schilleriana, and Phaius flavus) for which a valid exportation permit had been issued. The shipment, however, also contained 190 orchid specimens for which no permit had been provided (Paphiopedilum philippinense, Paphiopedilum ad ductum, Epigeneium treacherianum, Grammatophyllum scriptum). This fraudulent technique of mixing legal and illegal crops is common. Only experts or customs official who received special training may be able to ascertain if a plant declared as artificially produced was actually taken from nature.

Even controversies sometimes happen, with specialists arguing in court whether the specimens were taken from the wild or grown in a nursery. If a case is too hard to settle, the judge may give the benefit of doubt to the accused, and set them free.

This goes to show how necessary deep knowledge and training of specialized personnel are to the fight against illegal trafficking of protected species.

Guerlain’s Imperial Orchid

French perfume and cosmetics company Guerlain has always been exploring the world to find the most extraordinary natural ingredients: Damask rose, Kerala jasmine, Calabrian bergamot…

This research has led specialists from the brand to southern China, in the heart of the jungles of Yunnan, where they discovered the properties of the Vanda coerulea, a species of orchid known for its legendary longevity. The blue plant gave birth in 2006 to Guerlain’s Orchidée Impériale line of cosmetics, which quickly became a flagship of the brand.

But this flower can only flourish in an intact nature. Therefore, it is at the other end of the world that Guerlain cultivates and protects the orchids in their natural environment, ensuring a harvest of raw materials of the highest quality. The company replanted thousands of hectares of forest to protect this species from the impacts of deforestation, and also works with local communities, offering alternatives to the intensive monoculture of tea terraces, which have been the cause of the deforestation ravaging the ecological balance in the region.

Succes in Georgia

And orchids are only one example among others: Georgia exports nearly 15 million snowdrops bulbs annually, mostly to Turkey and to the Netherlands. Prized by collectors for the colorful surface they provide in planted areas, snowdrops are also sought after by the pharmaceutical industry for a molecule they contain, galantamine, which might slow Alzheimer’s disease (its early-onset forms, in any case). And if snowdrops are not as charismatic as orchids, they are the only flowers whose bloom can be admired in January, which makes them irresistible.

Their popularity also comes from the number of their varieties, which attracts collectors: up to 1500 species of snowdrops have been identified worldwide. A bulb for a new species of snowdrops can trade up for more than $550 on the Internet. In Georgia, the demand became so great that the plant was in danger of extinction. Liaising with the national authorities, CITES then started a program to inventory both wild and cultivated specimens, so as to later set sustainable levels for harvest and export, as well as develop control mechanisms to minimize the impact of international trade on the longevity of stocks. This intervention, without which several

species of snowdrop present in Georgia would probably extinct, was a success for both CITES and the national authorities

Difficulty in Mexico

But the intervention of CITES does not always achieve the desired result. In Mexico, organized crime is now turning to a new market, the cactus. For fifteen years, the increasing demand of North American and European cactus enthusiasts has built this market up to an estimated several million dollars value annually.

New gardening practices, like the planting of resistant species in arid environments to reduce water-consumption, are the source of an increasingly important demand. Some rare species of cactus can go for as high as $10,000. After drug trafficking and weapons, the illegal trade in cactuses is believed to be the third largest black market in Mexico.

Most species of cactus are listed in Appendix II of CITES; the trade in their specimens, either taken from the wild or grown artificially, is only allowed if a permit has been issued. But the Mexico City police already have a lot to do with the fight against drug cartels, so controls and prosecutions are extremely rare.

Support from local authorities is essential to ensure the application of legislation regarding species protection. But in some areas of the world experiencing conflict or other big illegal trades the regulation of illegal trade in plants is rarely a priority for monitoring organisms. Thus in Mexico, cactuses are the direct victims of the lack of time and resources of the police.

Might collectors be useful

If collectors are at the root of many illegal trades, most of them consider themselves lovers of nature, and they rarely feel that they deserve to be likened to traffickers who kill elephants and rhinos. Connoisseurs of plants, they sometimes feel that by preserving them in their private collections, they are contributing to the conservation of rare species. And it is true that many orchid species extinct in the wild continue to survive in private nurseries. The situation is the same for all the various plant species prized by collectors: orchids, cactuses, snowdrops, etc.

However, the contention of most experts and representatives of the developing countries where those flowers are natives is that they, and orchids in particular, should be preserved in their natural state and in their original ecosystem. In addition, the private collections containing these illegal plants are secret collections, for the eyes of a few people, hidden from everyone else.

Moreover, nothing guarantees the sustainability of these private collections. What fate awaits them if their owner comes to lose interest, or dies? Those questions do not arise in the case of public collections.


Sometimes, the frenzy of collectors pushes some plant species to the brink of extinction, sometimes even before they can be identified and studied by researchers. It seems that for some, the sole preservation of a rare species takes precedence over the conservation of whole wild ecosystems. In this light, justifying those passions that encourage private property to the detriment of the common good proves a little difficult. The illegal harvest of rare plants to satisfy a small number, though often undervalued, is thus an important issue with regard to the conservation of these species and to biodiversity

in general. The consequences that illegal harvesting could have on biodiversity should encourage the development of appropriate protection measures in collaboration with the relevant authorities. However, we must remember that illegal harvesting is only one of the issues facing the conservation of plants, which are globally threatened by habitat loss. Moreover, we should not stigmatize the community of gardeners and horticulture enthusiasts, who, as a whole, are very environmentally conscious. Indeed, in most cases, the momentum and passion of these fans is a powerful driverfor the conservation of biodiversity.

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