Oncidium harrisonianum orchid

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Orchid Thieves, Beware

Smuggling Rare Plants

When a rare orchid was confiscated at the U.S. border, it had to be labeled as “unidentified” before being sent on to San Diego Zoo Global’s Plant Rescue Center. The little green stalk didn't have any blooms, so customs officials were unable to determine its type. Under our horticulture staff's meticulous care it did eventually flower, and turned out to be a Stone's Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum stonei, a rare "lady slipper" orchid native only to the northwestern coast of Borneo.

First discovered by the western world in 1862, Stone's Paphiopedilum was immediately popular with plant collectors. Unfortunately, decades of relentless poaching have made this rare flower vulnerable to extinction. And Stone's Paphiopedilum is not unique—wild spaces around the world are being plundered for plants like orchids, cycads, cacti, and succulents.

Paphiopedilum stonei orchid

Stone's Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum stonei is a rare orchid native only to the northwestern coast of Borneo. Paphiopedilums are commonly known as "Venus slipper orchids," "lady slipper orchids," or simply "slipper orchids."

Protecting Plants

Many people think of animals or animal parts when they hear “wildlife trafficking”—rhino horn, elephant ivory, pangolin scales—but plants are victims of poaching, too, and face many of the same problems as animals. In fact, more than 5,600 illegally trafficked plant species are seized by U.S. customs officials every year.

More plant species than animal species are considered to be impacted by the wildlife trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international, trade-regulating treaty recognized by many governments around the world, lists 5,811 animal species⁠—which includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates⁠—compared to 29,990 species of plants.

Dendrobium eximium orchid

The Extraordinary Dendrobium Dendrobium eximium is a rare orchid native to New Guinea. The name Dendrobium comes from the ancient Greek words dendros, meaning tree, and bios, meaning life. There are more than 1,000 types of Dendrobium orchids, and many of them grow on trees.

A Safe Haven for Rescued Orchids

To combat wildlife smuggling, San Diego Zoo Global partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation organizations to create a Wildlife Trafficking Task Force. Combined with CITES, the task force has been successful in reducing the number of rare plants that make it to the black market for sale.

The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are safe havens for plants and animals rescued from illegal trade, and the Zoo has been designated as an official Plant Rescue Center since 1988. Our botanical teams take in, care for, and propagate confiscated plants in an effort to rebuild their populations.

Examples of slipper orchids: Paphiopedilum vietnamense, Paphiopedilum hangianum, Paphiopedilum tigrinum

From left to right: Vietnamese Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum vietnamense from northern Vietnam; Hang's Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum hangianum also from northern Vietnam; and Tiger Striped Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum tigrinum from southwestern China.

How the Orchid Rescue Process Works

Many people don't realize that transporting plants across international borders requires permits, and that plants have many of the same protections as animals.

  1. Every international plant shipment requires phytosanitary and CITES permits. Without proper documentation, plants can be confiscated.
  2. Once a plant, or shipment of plants, has been confiscated, U.S. customs officials consult with their counterparts in the country, or countries, from which the plants were exported.
  3. Confiscated plants are assigned to an accredited Plant Rescue Center, such as the San Diego Zoo, where they stay for a 30-day waiting period. This gives the country of origin time to request the return of their plants.
  4. If the plants do not return to their country of origin, they may be adopted, displayed, and propagated by the Plant Rescue Center and become part of that organization’s collection. Many bundles, cuttings, and seeds have found safe haven in the Zoo’s greenhouses over the years.
  5. Under U.S. law, confiscated plants may never be traded or sold.
Cymbidium devonianum orchid

Devon's Cymbidium Cymbidium devonianum is native to the cloud forests of Asia and can be found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cymbidiums are commonly known as "boat orchids."

Hero image, top: Oncidium harrisonianum, an orchid native to southeastern Brazil. Oncidiums are commonly known as "dancing lady orchids" or "dancing doll orchids."