SA Orchids: Conservation

Satyrium hallackii ssp hallackiiOrchids have fascinated plant lovers and botanists for centuries, and as a consequence people have often wanted to grow orchids in their own home. Unfortunately, the most convenient way to obtain plants has always been to remove them from their natural habitat. This has resulted in many orchids becoming increasingly rare in the wild.

A threat to the orchids is also commercial exploitation on a large scale, mainly for medicinal purposes. Many of our orchids are currently being collected in large quantities for sale to traditional healers.

Another serious problem throughout our region is the rapid encroachment of alien plants in orchid habitats. This also endangers the survival of the orchids.

However, the biggest threat is the destruction of the natural habitats to make way for urban or agricultural development and for forestry. Currently there are about 100 southern African orchids (species as well as infraspecific taxa) listed as being threatened with extinction in the wild, and five are already extinct.

Satyrium hallackii subsp. hallackii, illustrated above left, is an endangered species.

Orchid habitats
Luckily, many of our orchids grow in inaccessible mountain areas and these species are therefore fairly safe at present. Montane grasslands, particularly in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga, are rapidly disappearing under pine plantations and the orchids are disappearing together with them. In most cases it is the lowland species which are threatened with extinction, as they are living in an environment which is very suitable for urbanisation and agriculture.

Conservation measures
In order to ensure the survival of our orchids in the wild it has become necessary to institute certain conservation measures.
The orchids themselves are protected by local as well as international legislation, both inside and outside of conservation areas.It is illegal to collect orchids in nature without a valid permit from the local nature conservation authority. As national legislation changes from time to time and is under review at present, it is advisable to enquire and find out exactly which permits you need before going out to collect orchids.

Education programs are under way to make landowners conservation-conscious and to protect rare plants on their land. International trade in orchids is also regulated through a strict permit system. An international convention called CITES (= Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) controls the movement of rare plants and animals from one country to another.

One way to protect plants is protection through cultivation, both in botanical gardens and in specialist collections, and this has been termed ex situ conservation. Rare orchids are cultivated and propagated, with the final aim to replenish the populations in the wild one day.

Also habitats are being protected, as local authorities establish conservation areas like municipal nature reserves, game reserves, state forests, water catchment areas, wilderness areas and national parks. When talking of plant conservation one must always remember that it is essential to protect also the pollinators of the plants, without whom they cannot survive. Therefore habitat protection is basically more beneficial to most plants, as their pollinators are protected together with them. Authorities generally attempt to conserve especially those areas which have a particularly high degree of biodiversity and endemism.

What you can do to help
People frequently ask what they can personally do to help. Although most of us cannot stop the destruction of our environment, there is quite a lot we can do for the survival of the orchids. Firstly, one should never dig up orchid plants, but only take photographs, and buy living plants exclusively from nurseries. It is a good thing to grow orchids and know how to grow them; this may be important one day for the ex situ conservation of particular species. One should report sightings of rare orchids in areas which are earmarked for development to botanists or horticulturist who would then remove and transplant them to safer sites. If one can afford it, one should financially support conservation agencies. By adding to our knowledge of orchids and their distribution, you can help in ensuring their survival, as detailed knowledge of the plants is necessary for working out adequate conservation measures.

Description and image : Hubert Kurzweil
October 2000
(Updated by Clare Archer, August 2010)

SANBI Home © S A National Biodiversity Institute