Eaten as food, African orchids threatened by illegal trade

July 31, 2001

NEW YORK -- More than 2.2 million wild orchids are being strip-mined each year from a unique region in Africa, fueled by a growing demand to use the plants as food, according to a report released today by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).The report says that the orchids, some found nowhere else on earth, may soon vanish without better protection of their wild habitats and enforcement of existing laws.

According to the report, wide expanses of the Southern Highlands region of Tanzania where the orchids occur remain unexplored biologically. However, initial surveys show that the region contains a significant portion of the nation's biodiversity, much of it in the form of plant life. To help protect this region, WCS is currently pushing to turn a key area of the Southern Highlands, called the Kitulo Plateau, into a national park. If established, the park will be one of the first protected areas in tropical Africa to be gazetted primarily on the merits of its floral significance.

But the plateau is currently under intense orchid harvesting pressure. The report says that up to 85 species are being rapidly depleted for use in "chikanda" or "kinaka," a delicacy in which the root or "tuber" of terrestrial orchids is the key ingredient in a type of meatless sausage. Though the food has declined in popularity in Tanzania, it has become increasingly prevalent in neighboring Zambia, subsequently fueling a booming international commercial market.

"Millions of orchids are being virtually strip-mined from Tanzania's Southern Highlands," said WCS conservation biologist Tim Davenport. "At current rates, many species will be wiped out in a matter of a few years."

All orchid species are protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which requires certification of plants crossing international borders. However, scant knowledge of the trade's existence, and a subsequent lack of enforcement of CITES rules, has led to truckloads of uncertified plants entering Zambia each day.

Orchids belong to a family of non-woody perennials with more than 20,000 species worldwide. Celebrated for their attractive colors and shape, some are known to produce flowers that closely resemble female insects, an adaptation that turns male insects into pollinators. In the U.S. alone the orchid trade is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

Though rural Africans have consumed orchids for hundreds of years, the recent popularization of eating the plants in Zambia -- especially in urban centers -- has caused the recent boom in illegal trade, according to WCS.

The report found said that men and women from every age group dig up orchids in Tanzania to supplement their income. In some areas it is considered a family activity, with children assisting parents. "Even primary school children participate in the collection during school holidays," Davenport said.

"The fact remains that the Southern Highlands are currently losing significant resources at an alarming rate," said Davenport. "The current trade in orchid tubers for consumption in Zambia is neither environmentally or economically in the best interests of Tanzania."
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The Wildlife Conservation Society is dedicated to saving wildlife and wild lands. With hundreds of field conservation projects around the globe, pioneering educational programs, and the nation's largest system of urban zoological parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo, the organization brings a unique set of assets to the work of protecting wild ecosystems. Central to this effort is inspiring people to get involved in safeguarding wildlife in an increasingly populated and developed world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working to make future generations inheritors, not just survivors.

Additional Contact: JOHN DELANEY (718-220-3275; jdelaney@wcs.org)

ELECTRONIC COPIES OF THE REPORT AND PRESS PHOTOS ARE AVAILABLE THROUGH WCS

Wildlife Conservation Society

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