Exotic Orchids Face Extinction

An Indian orchid. (Photo: Bapi Roy Choudhury)

Agricultural scientists have warned that certain species of exotic orchids, found in northeast India, are now severely depleted due to widespread deforestation and reckless smuggling.

A recent survey found that about seventy orchid species, out of a total eight hundred which grow in the region consisting of seven hilly States, are on the verge of extinction. Northeast India has been designated a 'mega diversity' area for flora and fauna. There are approximately 1,300 orchid species growing throughout India.

Scientists and experts are now pushing the Indian government to formulate a detailed plan for conservation of its biological wealth. "The unique biosphere zone should be taken as a single component," said Dr. Shankar Kumar Das.

Das, a scientist in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is one of those attempting to preserve endangered species of orchids. "It's a matter of grave anxiety that rare species of orchid are shrinking. Various sustainable steps need to be taken urgently," he said.

According to Das, the uncontrolled orchid export trade is a big problem, though he admits that it is possible for such trade to exist without causing severe depletion. Nevertheless, illegal smuggling continues to pose a grave threat to endangered orchids.

Other factors affecting orchid loss include the improper use of land, unscientific cultivation (Jhuming), deforestation, and the general exploitation of natural resources which cause serious damage to India's wealth of biodiversity. Experts state that northeast India has been identified as one of 18 'hot spot' areas in the world (areas in serious distress) in terms of the threat faced by the existing flora and fauna.

Deforestation through various means, including burning and cutting down forest trees for timber, has been the major cause for the depletion of Indian orchids. A large number of orchid species, which were once abundant in Indian forests, are now at the verge of extinction. Some have become so rare that botanical teams are unable to trace them. An example of this is Paphiopedilum druryi, a species which was once found in great quantities in South India's Agastaya Hills, and is now difficult to locate.

Institutions, scientists and individuals have been working to make things better despite formidable obstacles. The department of life sciences at the University of Manipur, located in northeast India, has developed a tissue culture technique to propagate approximately 1,000 rare orchid seedlings.

The Arunachal Pradesh state government, part of what are called the Seven Sister States of northeast India, has set up the Orchids Research and Development Center at Tipi, a remote village. The States of Arunachal, Manipur and Mizoram feature 500, 470, and 150 orchid species respectively.

In Arunachal Pradesh, orchids occur naturally in diverse habitats. In the rich tropical forests of the Tipi district, clusters of beautiful blue vanda (Vanda coerulea) adorn the trees. The Tipi Orchid Research Center boasts over 500 species of orchids. Sessa, 15 miles from Tipi, has an Orchid Sanctuary which abounds in a variety of species including the white Coelogyne nitida (which grows on moss covered rocks), the tree-borne yellow Cymbidium elegans, and Dendrobium chrysanthum, the bright yellow flowers.

The drive from Tipi to Sessa puts a wealth of natural beauty on display. Along the roads one can see species like Dendrobium gibsonii, with its clusters of beautifully formed yellow flowers featuring rich maroon centers, and Dendrobium nobile with its white and purple flowers. One of the rarer, more endangered ground orchids found in Arunachal is the Paphiopedilum species (the Venus or Lady's slipper orchids).

To increase public awareness about the plight of the endangered orchids, the federal agricultural ministry is considering an international orchid festival in Arunachal Pradesh this year.

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