Botanical management and conservation efforts frequently lag behind efforts focused on the more charismatic fauna.
Yet, in many places, wild plants and associated non-timber forest products continue to form important parts of rural livelihoods, diets, medicines, and cultural practices.
This is particularly so in parts of mainland Southeast Asia, an epicenter of botanical diversity that has been subject to surprisingly few botanical conservation assessments and efforts.
Amid the widespread threats of habitat destruction, commercial harvest and trade represents a targeted, high-intensity pressure on many taxa.
Unlike many traditional practices with a comparatively local harvest and use, contemporary commercial demand for many wild plants is outstripping supply.
Yet, botanical trade is frequently overlooked.
Such is the case with the Southeast Asian trade in wild ornamental plants for horticultural markets.
Our recent study on this unseen wildlife trade presents key results from surveys of illegal wildlife markets across Thailand, including its borders with Lao PDR and Myanmar.
Surveys uncovered more than 400 ornamental species in illegal commercial trade at public markets, including several species new to science.
Most of the traded plans are orchids, one of the largest families of flowering plants and which is widely prized by plant enthusiasts for beautiful, fragrant and unusual flowers.
However, international trade in wild-collected orchids is – at least on paper – also among the most tightly regulated groups of wildlife trade.
THREATENED AND ENDANGERED
Many orchids are protected under national legislation, and international trade in wild orchids is tightly restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
These alarming findings, however, may be overlooked in some circles because they involve plants rather than animals.
Indeed, this trade has been – until now – officially “invisible”.
Government statistics of the international trade in plants, gathered by customs and enforcement bodies, document very limited international trade in wild-collected plants across Southeast Asia.
While we know very little about the life histories of most of the species encountered in trade, a number are recognized as threatened or endangered.
Traders report also suggest that many species are becoming increasingly difficult for them to find in the wild.
Amid growing concern about biodiversity conservation and the illegal wildlife trade, there is a risk that plants will continue to be overlooked in domestic conservation actions and international forums, including United for Wildlife and the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network.
There is a need to take botanical conservation seriously.
This requires an expanded view that considers not only charismatic megafauna such as elephants, rhinoceros and tigers, but also the broad number of plant species that are also subject to trade.
We call for increased attention to botanical trade and conservation in Southeast Asia, and argue that efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade must ensure they include flora.
There is an urgent need to improve botanical trade monitoring and enforcement. Even where plants are legally recognized as protected, as in the case of many targeted ornamental plants such as orchids, cycads and pitcher plants (Nepenthes spp.), established rules often remain unimplemented.
There is a need for both broader, multifaceted responses to illegal trade and botanical conservation, as well as basic monitoring and enforcement to help operationalizing existing conservation commitments.
Efforts to curb the illegal wildlife trade must also include a concern for plants.
Jacob Phelps is a scientist with CIFOR, based in Bogor, Indonesia. He can be reached at J.Phelps@cgair.org
CIFOR’s research into the illegal wildlife trade is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.