They have always been the most glamorous, exotic flowers on earth; now they are the most at risk. And just why orchids are the world's most threatened plants has become dramatically clear with the jailing of a senior scientist at a British company who was an ardent orchid collector - and smuggler.
The attempt by Dr Sian Lim to bring more than 100 orchid specimens into Britain illegally from his native Malaysia involved some that are on the brink of extinction in the wild - specifically because of collectors.
Lim, from Putney, south London, head of research and development at Medpharm, a drugs company, was caught at Heathrow in June 2004. He was sentenced to four months in jail at Isleworth Crown Court in west London after admitting 13 charges of smuggling plants that are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Some specimens can change hands for thousands of pounds. Customs officials and plant conservationists who examined his haul discovered that 126 plants of the 130 they seized from his luggage were all Asian slipper orchids - one of the rarest of all the 750 orchid genera, or groups of species. They are distinguished by a voluptuous lower petal, or lip, and are closely related to Britain's rarest wild flower, the lady's slipper. This orchid survived as just one plant, guarded round the clock in a secret location, until recently after British collectors nearly wiped it out. It has now been planted elsewhere. Some Asian slipper orchids, including ones in Lim's haul, are only known from a single location. Others may now be extinct in the wild, within a few short years of being discovered, such have been the plant-hunters' activities.
Lim had specimens ofPaphiopedilum rothschildianum, named after the eminent Victorian orchid grower, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Of all the species in the Paphiopedilum or slipper genus, this is one of the rarest in nature. Despite extensive searching for more than 100 years, it has been located only in a small number of sites on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. A site recently discovered outside the Park has been reported to be collected-out by illegal plant-hunters.
Paphiopedilum gigantifolium discovered in 1997, is confined to Sulawesi, Indonesia, and is now thought to be extinct at its original location because of over-collecting. But it was also in Lim's secret consignment.
Judge Richard McGregor Johnson told Lim: "I am satisfied that you did bring in these orchids with a view to commercial gain. It is essential the courts make it plain that such behaviour will not be tolerated, in order to discourage others who might be tempted to follow in your footsteps."
All Asian slipper orchids are strictly regulated under Cites, being placed on the Cites Appendix 1, which bans completely their trade from the wild.
Dominic Connolly, who acted on behalf of the newly-established Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office (RCPO), told the court that the international trade in orchids was a multimillion-dollar industry. "But the majority of this trade is in cultivated hybrid plants," he said.
"Legal trade in orchids taken from the wild is very limited, with many countries banning their export. As a result there is an illegal trade and they are often offered for sale under the counter at orchid shows."
Mr Connolly said that Dr Lim had obtained permits for to import 8,980 orchids in 2003, which he sold at shows.
Dr David Roberts, an orchid expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who helped to identify Lim's haul, said that illegal collecting and trade was pushing the rarest orchid species to extinction.
Another Asian slipper orchid, discovered in Vietnam only in 1999 and a species completely new to science (Paphiopedilum vietnamense), had been driven extinct a year later, he said.
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