African Orchids Threatened by Epicurean Demand

By Cat Lazaroff

NEW YORK, New York, August 2, 2001 (ENS) - More than 2.2 million wild orchids are being stripmined each year from a unique region in Africa, fueled by a growing demand to use the plants as food, says a report from the Wildlife Conservation Society. 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.


Some African orchids are harvested intensely for use in a local delicacy. This is Calanthe sylvatica, a semi-aquatic orchid from the Makete district of the Southern Highlands (Photo by Tim Davenport/WCS)
To help protect this region, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is 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 inventoried primarily on the merits of its flowers.

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, where it is 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.


Matamba Ridge, on the northern rim of Kitulo Plateau, is home to many rare orchid species. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working to win protection for the Kitulo Plateau as a national park (Photo by Tim Davenport/WCS)
Orchids belong to a family of perennial plants 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 the WCS report.

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."