Protecting our forest gem
By Patricia Hului
HABITAT DESTRUCTION, POACHING AND ILLEGAL trade; these are the threats orchids face, according to Ong Poh Teck, an orchid researcher from Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM).
In a talk on May 24 on ‘Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia, Gems in the Forest’ during SBC Biodiversity Day, Ong said that habitat destruction was by far the biggest threat to orchid populations.
“This is largely contributed by human activities such as farming, logging and mining,” he said, adding that building new settlements in town, dams, roads were also detrimental to orchid habitats.
Although our country is rich with natural resources, he stressed that Malaysians should be very careful in how to manage them, for fear of losing all precious flora fauna in future.
Ong, the lead author of ‘Wild Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia’ also mentioned that orchid poaching and illegal trading also posed a threat to the orchid populations, not only in Malaysia but many other countries as well.
“Although you may still find people selling wild collected orchids in the market, many people are trading plants through websites, even through social media such as Facebook,” said the researcher.
Ong who has published multiple articles on orchid taxonomy and orchid pollination in national and international journals and magazines said the real problem was basically supply and demand.
Orchids which are famous as ornamental flowers are prone to illegal trade and are in high demand.
As such, Ong explained that the middle man simply responded as a businessman, complying to market demand and earning substantial money in the process.
“As for illegal collection, it is a straightforward case of stealing,” Ong said.
He highlighted one unfortunate case where the orchid Dendrobium roslii – thanks to illegal collectors – had been completely wiped out.
“It had disappeared from the wild even before it was formally described.”
To make matters worse, Ong said that this species was not easy to cultivate and most of the wild collected plants that were illegally exported died.
As a responsible individual, we can do our part to prevent further pressure on wild orchid’s populations.
Orchid lovers need to differentiate between wild collected orchids and artificial propagated orchids and always opt for the latter.
How to tell the difference?
Ong pointed out that “wild collected orchids usually have irregular sizes compared to artificially propagated ones which are in uniform size.”
According to him, wild collected plants usually have signs of stress whereas artificially propagated ones look healthy depending on whether the nurserymen took good care of them.
He emphasised that nurserymen need to be shown how to make the shift to artificial propagation instead of collecting them from the wild.
Another tip he offered was to look at the roots. “Roots spreading in all directions are often broken in the wild collected orchids compared to artificial propagated.”
“The government alone cannot play the entire role in conserving orchids. It also depends on responsible individuals such as ourselves to make it a success.”
On existing species of orchids here in Sarawak, he said: “There are some similarities between Peninsular and Borneo as well.”
He said that with the size of Peninsular Malaysia, they had already found roughly 1,000 species, and he speculated that Sarawak probably had double or triple that amount although he noted that there was a lack of studies and orchid taxonomists in Sarawak.
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website, there are approximately 3,000 species of orchids in Borneo, more than anywhere else in the world.
Under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998, all orchids are listed as protected plants in Sarawak.
The law says, “Any person who collects, cultivates, cuts, trims, removes, burns, poisons, in any way injures, sells, offers for sale, imports, exports or is in possession of, any protected plant or any recognizable part or derivative thereof, except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a license issued under this Ordinance, shall be guilty of an offence: Penalty, imprisonment for one year and a fine of ten thousand ringgit”.