Illegal trade threatens rare wild flowers with extinction: Widespread smuggling throughout the European Community is putting the future of some species of orchids and cacti in jeopardy. Tim Kelsey reports

European trade in rare flowers is threatening the survival of some of the world's most exotic species. The first detailed report on the horticultural trade has revealed the widespread sale of rare plants despite international bans.

British collectors feature among those most guilty of jeopardising the future of a number of endangered species, particularly among orchids and cacti. Customs officers warn that the plants' plight will become more uncertain with the start of the single market at the end of the year.

Confidence in the reliability of countries to police trade was not helped by the decision this month to suspend Italy from all trade in wildlife because of persistent breaches of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The CITES secretariat had evidence that the Italian authorities had been helping traders by issuing false documentation for export and import.

The report, which is due to be published next month by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation, demonstrates that the illegal trade is more widespread than previously suspected.

Investigators visited more than 100 nurseries in eight countries, including the United Kingdom. They discovered a wide range of banned plants openly advertised for sale.

Inspectors found 2,000 Paphiopedilum, south-east Asian slipper orchids picked in the wild, on the shelves of one of the most prestigious nurseries in France.

This genus is one of the most threatened. Of the 70 known species, 22 face extinction; 3 are already extinct. The leaves of the plants were mottled; they stood unsteadily in their pots because their roots had been stripped for export; the flowers of some were deformed.

There was no way in which the Lecouffle family, who have been cultivating orchids since the beginning of the century, would have bred such imperfect plants. The imperfections were, in fact, evidence of their true provenance - the jungles of the Philippines.

Traffic alerted the French customs who seized the plants. The dealer, Marcel Lecouffle, claimed that the plants had come from a Philippine dealer who had imported them into France.

Customs in Paris said last week that each illegal plant was worth between 200 and 300 francs ( pounds 20- pounds 30), which is about average for the species. Some plants can fetch prices running into thousands of pounds.

Throughout Europe - particularly in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and France - nurserymen treat CITES, the treaty that all EC countries signed in 1984 which lists all endangered species of flora and fauna and prohibits the rarest from trade, with brazen contempt. All orchids without a licence are banned from trade. 'Most dealers in species orchids are said to have contravened regulations at some time or another,' the report states.

British dealers are more discreet than most. Of two nurseries visited, inspectors found no evidence of wild-grown plants for sale; all had apparently been artificially propagated.

But Britain, which was the centre of orchid cultivation during the 19th and early 20th centuries, retains a small and aggressive core of specialist collectors.

Plants collected in the wild undoubtedly enter the UK. Between April 1990 and March 1991, British Customs confiscated 1,091 plants; in the following year, 861 plants were seized. The decline has been the source of some satisfaction to the authorities, but the seizures amount to only a fraction of the plants brought into the UK illegally.

What causes most alarm is the growing number of British collectors who now travel to Europe in search of wild plants. Many of the illegal Continental importers are reluctant to export to the UK because of tight import controls, but the plants come in because the collectors bring them in.

Demand from British collectors is one of the reasons for the buoyancy of the illegal European trade. 'Our nurseries are pretty clean,' said the author of the report, Martin Jenkins. 'The bad guys are the collectors.'

There are more than 20,000 species of orchid - some estimate as many as 40,000. There are dozens of species yet to be discovered. These are the plants of most interest to the collectors. They want them from the wild partly for the kudos, but also because it saves labour. An orchid can live for 100 years but can take seven years to flower. Many are extremely difficult to propagate. Customs do not believe that smuggling persists on a large or organised scale in the UK. In the last three years, only three British traders have been convicted of smuggling.

Customs officers privately complain about the failure of the courts to set sentences that could act as a deterrent. There is difficulty in bringing a case to court because of the need to prove that the smuggler was aware of trade controls.

Jacques Amand is a bulb dealer from Middlesex, born in the East End. His nursery is one of the largest in London. On the walls of his office he has numerous plaques commemorating gold medals awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society during the Chelsea Flower Show. There is one from 1992.

In June 1991, Mr Amand pleaded guilty to illegally importing 853 orchids - mainly North American slipper orchids - and 475 woodland plants from the United States.

Customs had been intercepting shipments he was importing for some time, but nothing was found. Finally, Mr Amand was caught with three sacks full of weed-like stems in his hand luggage. 'They were strands rather than plants. It was like a mass of spaghetti,' one officer said.

The orchids had been stripped of their roots - the plants can survive for a remarkably long time in this state. They were not mature plants, which made identification very difficult. It was impossible to tell if they were wild.

Mr Amand had already declared one load to Customs as orchids, and provided documentation. When he tried to slip through the green channel with the other plants, he was immediately suspect. All orchids require a licence.

Mr Amand was fined pounds 200 and pounds 50 costs - a fraction of their value on the open market. 'That gives you an idea of the seriousness of it,' Mr Amand said.

'I did something technically wrong. I didn't have the documents. The way the rules are set up is not right. As the law stands, you can go into a forest, chop all the trees down and leave the orchids to die but if you try and save them you're in trouble. It was a minor hiccup with the law.'

Which? magazine noted shortly after the conviction that Mr Amand was a member of the Bulb Distributors' Association 'which told us last year that all their members would abide by CITES requirements'.

Several months before Mr Amand was discovered at Heathrow, a botanist was arrested for trying to smuggle rare Chilean cacti tubers in the bottom of her handbag. One officer said: 'They were so repellent. Most looked dead, like dried-up turnips.' But cacti can live for hundreds of years, and many have flowers of exceptional beauty. She was fined pounds 200.

In both cases, Customs relied heavily on experts from Kew Gardens. Kew, in south-west London, offers services to those trying to regulate the outlawed trade.

It is the central intelligence resource for Customs: gossip inevitably ends up being recycled among the staff; it examines seized species; and it advises the Department of the Environment on the issue of export licences.

The most famous success Customs and Kew had against the traders was in 1989 with the prosecution of Henry Azadehdel, a Soviet Armenian insurance salesman living in Britain.

In his search for plants to feed a lucrative demand among collectors in the West, Azadehdel found the habitat of the rare Paphiopedilum Rothschildianum - Rothschild's Slipper Orchid - on the slopes of Mount Kinibalu in Borneo. He ravaged the crop and went on to find the location of several other species, discovering a new one as he did so.

He made no secret of his activities and after an international police investigation, which cost the taxpayer around pounds 30,000, was caught.

It was estimated that he made several hundred thousand pounds from the sale of these endangered plants; some fetched up to pounds 8,000 each. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced, for the first time, to a prison term. Conservationists were delighted. But on appeal, the sentence was suspended.

Mr Azadehdel's whereabouts are unknown but at the time of his release after six weeks in Pentonville prison he said he would continue 'the quest for new species of orchids'.

The case caused, according to one officer, a 'lot of heart- searching'. Two officers had worked full-time on it, men who would otherwise have been trapping drug smugglers. 'The truth,' said one, 'is we take these things very seriously. Azadehdel had rendered one species extinct and another virtually extinct.'

Tom de Meulenaer, of Traffic Europe, said that the survey proves the urgent need for tighter regulation of the flower trade. 'There is a general lack of awareness at the scale and dangers of it. A we-don't-care attitude seems to prevail.'

Tighter enforcement relies on a commitment by all members of the European Community to police the trade; many countries do not require CITES licences for trade between them.

The Traffic report recommends uniform legislation across Europe and better training of Customs officers as well as the introduction of nursery licensing for specialist cultivators.

Some argue that there should be a complete ban on the flower trade. Noel McGough, conservation officer at Kew, disagreed: 'You can't take away from the indigenous communities the right to use their own resources. Bans don't work well because they push the illegal trade underground. The most important thing, particularly with the single market, is to provide adequate funding for enforcement.'

Meanwhile, Kew takes no chances. The orchids it dares to put in its greenhouses are displayed behind glass, in the view of security cameras.

(Photograph omitted)

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