What is she reading now

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

I’m looking forward to this one, it’s about the true and frightening but bizarre world of orchid poaching. Actually, I had read a number of excerpts from this book years ago. It was for an environmental ethics and public policy course, a rather fitting venue to be exposed to the subject. Nothing gets me more worked up than rare or endangered organisms getting exploited out of existence.

A very recent example of this is the rather horrific story of the discovery of a new species of Phragmipedium orchid, whose genus has flowers that are typically small and dull brown or green. A nursery owner purchased an unknown orchid, which had an enormous magenta and purple bloom measuring six inches across perched on foot-high stem, from an Indian family in northeastern Peru. Systematic botanists at a botanical garden who had come across the plant independently posted a systematic paper, determined that it belonged to that particular genus and named this new species Phragmipedium kovachii. In just a few days time, from the discovery of the population to the published taxonomic description, the slope where the only 500 known individuals of this species were discovered had since been stripped clean.

This happened last year! Last year! Humans are barbaric. The entire population was disseminated before anything was understood about its reproductive biology or the pollinator ecology or what its environmental requirements were.

This story was the subject of a discussion I had with one of the botanists over lunch last year. She explained that most orchids have extremely complex and extended life cycles. Most are not fully understood. There are species that may only flower once every 50 years, triggered by unknown environmental cues, may be well camouflaged by looking like contemporaneously occurring species of weeds. More often than not, populations are clustered with very limited distributions, they are highly endemic.

That there are people who are this passionate about orchids solely for the cause of collecting, solely for who can possess the most unusual and rare, in an era of environmental and species protection is completely astounding to me. I know for a fact that the same sort of people and conditions exist for the trading and selling of illegal insects (i.e. those that are rare or endangered, those that are protected in some way). All orchids everywhere are protected, it is illegal and punishable by fines and jail time to remove specimens from the wild. Even claiming innocence through ignorance to owning a protected species is punishable with fines. Again, similiar conditions exist in entomology.

Am I wrong to be under the impression that we are in an era of heightened awareness of the value of biodiversity? This is what I do for a living, this is my passion! I study the importance of diversity in maintaining ecosystem health. The current funded project involves studying aquatic insects as indicator species all along the watershed of the Susquehanna River.

In spite of my passion, regardless of my commitment to biodiversity research, my faith in humanity continually diminishes.