When people think of the illegal wildlife trade, it's mostly elephant tusks and rhino horns that come to mind. But there is also a black market for wild orchids that, according to a new study, is increasingly moving onto social media.
Some of these plants can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. Once, in an offline auction, a rare orchid sold for $150,000. TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that tens of thousands of flowers are traded illegally across international borders every year.
"It's very secretive," Amy Hinsley, a member of the University of Kent's Durrell Institute of Conservation, told Motherboard. "We know it's happening, but unlike the ivory trade, not much attention has been paid to it."
Photos of dead elephants are heartbreaking. They have inspired celebrity-endorsed campaigns aimed at stopping the slaughter of around 35,000 animals each year, according to numbers from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Orchids, on the other hand, seem commonplace. Anybody can buy one at a flower shop or a grocery store. The problem is that people are buying wild-collected orchids, many of which are rare. Some are even endangered.
Before the internet, these flowers were sold exclusively in open-air markets in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand
The hottest sale items are orchids that can't be mass-produced, such as Paphiopedilum kolopakingii. It's a rare species of the popular lady's slipper orchid that grows naturally at high altitudes on rocky cliffs overlooking river gorges in Borneo. Recreating the conditions of its natural habitat is difficult, to say the least, so simply growing more of them elsewhere isn't an option.
"There are plenty of examples of species being over-collected almost to the point of extinction," Hinsley said.
She and her colleague David Roberts monitored a social media network, which they legally could not name, for mentions of orchids. They found that 22 to 46 percent of the posts included species that were most likely collected in the wild. Their findings were published earlier this week in Conservation Biology.
Before the internet, these flowers were sold exclusively in open-air markets in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand or through private traders who were found by word of mouth. Now the trade has moved to eBay and various social media networks. Sellers range from casual collectors who pick up flowers in their spare time to serious traders who make a living by satisfying foreign buyers, many of whom are located in the United States, EU, and Australia.
It's illegal to sell orchids without a permit across international borders. Since you can't get a permit to sell wild-collected orchids, all global trade in the flowers is technically forbidden. But it's not a high priority for border officials and even if they spot a shipment of wild orchids, they have to be able to tell them apart from the mass-produced kind.
Hinsley knows that shutting down the entire black market is a fool's errand. She does hope, however, to convince social media companies to become more vigilant when it comes to shutting down illegal sales. Raising the public's awareness of the problem could also boost resources committed to stopping the wild-collected orchid trade.
Why should ordinary people care about this problem? Because wild orchids are so sensitive to environmental factors in very specific locations, they often serve as the canary in the coal mine to warn scientists when a habitat has degraded.
"Plants have great ecological, cultural and economic value," Hinsley said. "Even though they aren't fluffy or cute, we need to take threats to them seriously."