Cameron Highlands

Paphiopedilum barbatum Photo : REACH/Amran

Bulbophyllum lobii Photo : REACH/Amran


You can get off alcohol and drugs, but you never get off orchids. Never'…
In 2006, the British newspaper ‘The Daily Telegraph’ published the following article. ‘On the moist, spicy slopes of Borneo's 13,500ft Mount Kinabalu grows the Rothschild orchid, a plant too sexy for its stalk. Named after Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, a 19th-century connoisseur of the erotic potential of flora, this rarest of orchids has hardly ever been seen outside its natural habitat. Which made it all the more surprising when six of them were found at Heathrow airport in the luggage of 32-year-old Sian Tiong Lim, a fresh-faced pharmaceutical researcher from Putney, south London. The plants had been smuggled into Britain to feed the fevered demand of collectors for exotic orchids. Last week Lim was jailed for four months - believed to be the stiffest sentence ever handed out by a British court to a plant trafficker - but the world's endangered orchids can feel no safer. Last week's court case heard that Lim, a recognised collector, had bought the orchids - more than a hundred in total - in his native Malaysia. He claimed that he had only shipped them to London because the local temperatures were too hot. Hot his haul certainly was. It included "some of the most sought-after orchids in the history of orchid collection". Two were so rare that the senior experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, home to the world's largest orchid collection, had never before encountered them. The plants, all protected by international treaties, were destined for the black market, where their value was estimated to be tens of thousands of pounds. Those infected by what is known as "orchidelirium" describe a condition not just beyond addiction but beyond hope. Eric Hansen, author of Orchid Fever, recalls a conversation with an otherwise down-to-earth neighborhood flower grower who told him: "You can get off alcohol, drugs, women, food and cars, but once you're hooked on orchids you're finished. You never get off orchids. Never”.’

Drugs, Arms and … Wild Orchids?...
In the highly lucrative world of plant trafficking, Orchidaceae, or orchids as they are more commonly known, are regarded as a family of plants highly sought after by collectors. Enthusiasts are mesmerised by the shapes, scents and colours of the flowers, of which there is a bewildering diversity of between 25000 and 30000 species. These collectors are also fascinated by their enthralling history. Up until the year 2000, orchids were thought to be around 26 million years old. That was until a dead bee preserved in amber was discovered in a Dominican Republic mine. From evolutionary clock analysis, scientists were able to determine that orchids are actually around 80 million years old, dating them back to the ‘Late Cretaceous’ period. In layman’s terms it is highly likely dinosaurs and orchids co-existed. Orchids have survived through the ages and now comprise the largest family of all flowering plants on earth. Therefore it is no wonder that orchid enthusiasts, fanatics, traders and poachers are fuelling the US$6 billion endangered plant black market, carving out smuggling routes that crisscross the world. Due to the abundance of orchids in Malaysia, they are a prime source for supplying this market. In many areas, such as the Cameron Highlands in Pahang, the threat to the orchid populations is a constant problem, due to their continued theft from the local forestry.


Driven by demand from local collectors, as well as wealthy buyers in the West, Japan and the Middle East, poachers from the surrounding villages, tourists, nursery operators and "specialists" come and collect the plants, often in large quantities. In most cases, the wild orchids are simply pulled from the trees or dug from the ground. They are conventionally smuggled to their destinations much the same as other endangered plants. Like drugs and arms, they are shipped in personal luggage, parcels, car trunks and shipping containers, to name but a few methods. Often smugglers will simply misdeclare a species on the import and export permits. This is very easy to do because identifying each genus is more often than not, extremely difficult for nonexperts and many border controls are unable to recognise the rarer species, especially when they are not in bloom. Bribes have also been known to make the process much easier. But unfortunately for the orchid, the more risk involved in the smuggling process, the greater the desire of the buyer. Carlo Blistery, legal counsel to the American Orchid Society, states, “It adds to the attraction and they want to have it, no matter what”. (www.telegraph.co.uk).

The Stigma of Perfection…
The following extract, from the same ‘Daily Telegraph’ article mentioned earlier, explains some of the reasons behind the attraction of wild orchids. “Most orchid varieties can be easily grown in nurseries, but the plants produced in such controlled conditions suffer from what some dealers describe as "the stigma of perfection". Their colours may be artificially bright, their petal structure too uniform. Prettified and no challenge to obtain, they lack the sensual, quasi-mystical aura of wild orchids. In the surreal demi-monde of orchidelirium, such plants are impostors. Only the blooms raised by nature can be considered authentic. Consumed by dreams of finding undiscovered orchids, some collectors make their own, often perilous, journeys to the jungles. More unscrupulous and less adventurous collectors rely on smugglers, of whom there are thousands supplying a market that is estimated to double every 10 years. Their activities, coupled with the destruction of native habitats, have driven some orchid varieties to the brink of extinction. "There is a lunatic fringe to the orchid world," says Hansen, "and a fine line between the average grower and the horticulturally insane. You will hear tales of murder, mayhem, betrayal and greed. These plants have a long, rich history and they stir up the deepest of human passions. People are mesmerised by them." Around the modern cult of the orchid has grown a bizarre world of services catering to the needs of connoisseurs. Those in America can avail themselves of orchid baby-sitters, orchid doctors and orchid boarding houses. One prominent New York collector with 3,000 rare orchids has a special greenhouse on top of his apartment with a cloud-making system and fans designed to simulate tropical breezes. No qualities of character or intellect can protect against the plants' strange allure. Confucius, Charles Darwin and Captain Bligh were all orchid obsessives.”


Treaties, Laws and Bribery…
It was not until the 1960s that regulations were enforced to preserve wild orchids and their habitats. They are now safeguarded by national laws and international treaties. Primary protection comes from the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), treaty. This treaty is signed by over 120 nations, including Malaysia, and therefore any species found in the Cameron Highlands listed on the CITES appendices, is legally untouchable. The following is a web link to the complete list of all protected orchids from the CITES treaty.


The CITES treaty fundamentally states that any species of plant that is endangered cannot be commercially traded. The trade in nursery-produced orchids is still allowed and growers are able to use plants to grow hybrids. This process is known as artificial propagation. The nurseries with CITES approval can also export the cultured plants as well as trade within their own country. However, despite the strict legislation of the treaty, there are many people who do not adhere to the law and are frequently caught selling endangered orchids. There is some unofficial ‘leeway’ in the whole system. It is possible to collect a small amount of orchids from the wild for research purposes, but the problem is the lack of a clear line as to what is considered excessive. However, to officially take orchids from the wild, authorisation via a permit is required. These permits can be bought from the Forestry Department and can be renewed annually. If the holder is caught smuggling wild or endangered orchids, the permit may be revoked, but only after a warning letter is sent and not complied with. This combined with a well greased bribing system, means people are rarely caught breaking the laws, and when they are little is done about it apart from the occasional nominal fine. Without the dangers and risks involved in the initial collection process, the forests are being stripped of numerous wild orchids, some common to the area, but some extremely rare to the world. In the Cameron Highlands there are over 600 species of wild orchid that have been discovered and catalogued so far, many of which are covered by CITES. Some of these are illustrated below.


Bulbophyllum lobii Photo : REACH/Antony

Paphiodeilum barbatum Photo : REACH/Antony

Phaius callosus Photo : REACH/Amran

Orchids and the Orang Asli People…
In the Cameron Highlands it is common knowledge that the local people, the Orang Asli, are being recruited and sometimes manipulated to poach orchids from the forests. Due to their seminomadic lifestyle the laws outlined by the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia (FDPM), appear to not apply to them. Their collection of flora and fauna for food, medicinal purposes and tradition, means the gathering of orchids from the forest at will, is only governed when excessive. Due to this lack of control, and the absence of any notable punishment enforced, many of the wild orchids they collect are being sold by the side of the road to passing tourists, or to dealers and nursery owners. Although it appears simple to place the majority of the blame for wild orchid poaching with the Orang Asli people, it is more the fault of those who recruit them to attain the plants on such a large scale. The chief of one of the Orang Asli villages was recently interviewed and openly admitted that nursery owners frequently gave them pictures of orchids, which they desired for retail along with promises of money on collection. Also, unfortunately for the Orang Asli people,


the considerable money which can be made from stolen orchids fails to reach them in any way and many villagers are being exploited for other people’s financial gain. The same chief of the Orang Asli village interviewed, (who asked to remain nameless), also admitted he knew collecting orchids from the wild was wrong. However he was also confident, they would not be prosecuted if caught as “Cameron Highlands is not a reserve”, he said.

Dealers, Nurseries and Half a Million Orchids…
The problem at the next level lies with dealers and nursery owners. To make a substantial profit in orchid smuggling, it is necessary to meet the need of the end consumer. This may be on an international scale, or for a more local market. At present, Orchids common in Malaysia are being exchanged with orchids common in Thailand to supply the demands of Asian collectors. The trade in fruits, vegetables and flowers across the border has carved out a well trodden smuggling route, where orchids are brought in and out at will. At Kea Farm in the Cameron Highlands two weeks ago, the Forestry Department discovered hard evidence that this is happening on a huge scale. Half a million orchids were found hidden at the back of the nursery, waiting to be put into shipping containers destined for smuggling to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The owner of Kea Farm had been granted a license many years previously to sell potted plants. However this was abused from very early on when he was caught cultivating stolen wild orchids in the nursery. Despite a warning letter from the Forestry Department threatening a maximum jail term of 5 years and a substantial fine for excessive collection, he continued his role in the smuggling trade. He is now awaiting sentence, which is looking like it will only amount to a mere RM1000 – RM2000 fine. This is hardly a dent in the money he has made from his illegal activities as it is common knowledge in the local villages that he has been selling wild orchids since 1990. Sometimes bought from the poachers for as little as RM 1-2 per orchid, each can sell initially for up to RM1000 and for as much as RM15000 at its final destination. At the same time as the Kea Farm discovery, a nursery owner based just outside Tanah Rata was also caught openly selling 2000 wild orchids by the side of the road. Although on a smaller scale, this is enough to make a substantial dent in the population of some of the rarer orchid species found.

(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)


All illegal plants from both cases have been confiscated by the Forestry Department who are currently undecided as to whether to attempt to return the plants to the wild, or auction them. This highlights the problems involved at government levels. Clearly, the orchids should be returned to the forest from where they were taken to help reestablish some of the decimated populations. Despite the fact that nurseries can play a huge role in the smuggling trade, the collectors are more to blame than anyone else. Those who desire, and are happy to pay large amounts for rare orchids, are fueling an industry of illegal exploitation and environmental damage. If the demand ceased to exist, those involved in the smuggling chains at all levels will be forced to find other sources of income. Unfortunately, it is likely that the demand will always be there and therefore it is necessary to discover new methods of orchid preservation in their natural habitats. This begins with conservation.

Thieves or Pragmatic Conservationists…
The Cameron Highlands is a tourist destination, where visitors often arrive to appreciate the idyllic surrounding rainforest. Unfortunately, as tourist numbers increase so does the development of new highways, hotels and restaurants, which are all being built at an alarming rate. Also, the rapid expansion of agricultural land in the region is a major concern. Both these activities are encroaching on the local forest and are as big of a threat to orchid populations as poaching. Some of the devastation caused by this development is shown below.

(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)


This is where the big debate begins. The question is whether smuggling hastens the extinction of wild orchids or whether it helps to preserve them. Many people, who are aware of the situation, actively defend orchid collectors and the smuggling trade. They believe that habitat loss is inevitable due to the fact that development and corruption appear to go hand in hand. They argue that this makes it impossible to protect the rainforests in which most wild orchid species grow. Without firm laws being enforced, it may be the case that it is essential to harvest as many orchids as possible before the ecosystems that surround them are destroyed. Many orchid growers and collectors claim they just want to gather endangered species from the wild to conserve them. Today, many orchids that are extinct in the wild due to habitat destruction continue to grow in greenhouses throughout the world. This allows the possibility of reintroducing them to their natural environments in the future. In the eyes of many orchid growers, it is the trade restrictions that endanger orchids, as it limits the freedom to cultivate, sell and exchange, which therefore helps to increase the orchid populations. Many also claim that it is the smugglers who preserve the various species for humanity to enjoy. However, most environmentalists see things very differently and claim orchid collectors ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’. Rather than attempt to protect a particular plant variety, the conservationists focus on preserving entire ecosystems, which is of course beneficial not just to the orchids, but also to the hundreds of other species of flora and fauna found within them. This method of ecology will secure the future of the rainforests, and will therefore guarantee that an environment exists for any orchids currently preserved in controlled greenhouses to be returned to. As has happened in many cases, if an area is under threat from logging, mining, or development for example, orchid collectors have been known to strip the wild of all species just in case they cannot be protected. However, a lot of these rainforests may yet be saved, and therefore there is a big difference between removing a few specimens from the wild to ensure that a species never goes extinct and removing every last orchid from an ecosystem. Environmentalists claim that collectors are motivated by greed, as there are numerous areas of rainforest that are well managed and secure from development, yet they have had every orchid removed from them in the name of ‘preservation’. Also, removing any species from an ecosystem can destroy the balance and consequently have detrimental effects on many other organisms.

Standing Up and Saying No…
In the Cameron Highlands, wild orchid poaching is big business. In an economy where people are often motivated by the ‘quick buck’, to many the smuggling is seen only as an easy source of income. However, there are a few people who are concerned with what is happening to the surrounding rainforests, who are willing to stand up to developers, government authorities and the poachers themselves. Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands (REACH) combined a handful of environmentally responsible tour guides, such as those at Cameron Secrets, are raising issues which many local people have turned a blind eye to for years. REACH is currently attempting to establish the region as a National Park, as this status would ensure more strictly enforced legislation and provide better protection for the local rainforests. One of their primary aims is to maintain the biodiversity of the local area and secure it for future generations. This includes not just the 600 species of orchids that are found locally by the REACH orchid team but also the huge range of plants and animals native to the region. In an ongoing campaign, they are attempting to research and catalogue all local species of wild orchid, (as well as many other ferns, trees and wild flowers), and make them all more common in the wild. Embi Abdullah, a member of REACH is quoted as saying,


"There's so much about the forest we don’t know. It is being destroyed and the plants stolen for smuggling, and we don’t even know everything that’s in there yet.” People such as Embi believe increasing awareness will decrease the demand by collectors for rarer species. This would therefore minimise the supply from the smuggling trade and eventually put an end to the poaching. By cataloging and reproducing plants in the wild, it reduces the need for the illegal trade as species become more easily billable, recognizable by authorities and more accessible for everyone to enjoy. Just last year, the orchid genus Monomeria Barbata, (shown below), which was not thought to be found anywhere in Malaysia, was discovered in the Cameron Highlands. This is just one example of the possibilities of what the local rainforests may hold, and therefore it is essential that it is preserved, not just for the orchids, but for everything else that resides within it.

Embi Abdullah and Monomeria barbata
(Photo courtesy of www.strangeark.com)

Monomeria barbata Photo: REACH/Amran

Support is always welcome in the Cameron Highlands from tourists, volunteers, locals and the government. Please visit the REACH website for more details. www.reach.org.my


Government of Malaysia. 2001. Environmental Quality Act and Regulations, MDC Publishers, 149. Holttum, R.E. 1964. A Revise Flora of Malaya: Orchids of Malaya, Government Printing Office of Singapore, 207, 401, 454, 528. Weng, Chan Ngai. 2006. Cameron Highlands: Issues and Challenges in Sustainable Development, Bujaya Enterprise Publishing, 12-26.

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