DoE fights on for orchids

| 24/09/2008

(CNS): According to the Department of Environment, it has not yet given up on the orchids which were seized in the Netherlands by Dutch customs earlier this year on their way to the Chelsea flower show in London. Despite recent rumours that the unique endemic blooms had found their way into the hands of private collectors, Mat Cottam from the DoE said that the orchids are still with the Dutch authorities and the DoE continues to negotiate for their release.

“Discussions are ongoing; however, the legal issues are complicated and will take some time to resolve,” said Cottam. “We are working together with Dutch authorities, DOT and DEFRA in the UK to seek a solution to the situation.”  He explained that this was a genuine red tape mistake and not an attempt to illegally transport endangered species. “We remain hopeful that the Dutch authorities will eventually see this and at the very least let the orchids go to Kew Gardens in London. We have a very robust MOU with Kew who would become the custodians of the plants but they would still belong to the Cayman Islands.”

The Dutch authorities responded to CNS equiries this week and confirmed that the flowers were still in their hands. CITES representative Henk Vonk said that they were in one of Holland’s botanical gardens. "Specialist men are taking care for the flowers," he said. "They are in good condition and one is flowering."

The eight Ghost and Banana orchids which embarked on the journey to Chelsea fell victim to the bureaucracy when one of the documents required under the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was overlooked. Andrew Guthrie, Director of the Queen Elizabeth Botanic Gardens, was the driving force behind the Heritage Garden, which went on to win a silver medal and proved a major attraction at the show. He explained how the paperwork came to be missing.

“Unfortunately, no one involved was aware that the EU had recently imposed further restrictions on CITES level IIplants, which required a CITES import permit from the destination country in addition to the CITES export permit,” he said. “This is strictly an EU rule, not an international CITES rule. The orchids had all the permits required from Cayman, but because we weren’t aware of this very recent requirement, they did not have a CITES import permit.”

He said that at some point the CITES management authority in the Netherlands would decide whether the plants are returned to the Cayman Islands or will remain in the Netherlands-designated CITES rescue site, but Guthrie agreed with Cottam that there was still a chance that the orchids would be allowed to go to Kew, where they were originally intended to go after the show, but the plants could not be sold.

Guthrie also noted that the concerns people had in Cayman that these flowers were exceptionally valuable and therefore vulnerable were misplaced. He explained that both of these endemic species of orchids have left the Cayman Islands in the past, and there are a number of commercial growers overseas who have had these plants, especially the Banana Orchid, for decades.

“The Banana Orchid is already in commercial production, people are selling it but no one is making a fortune off of them and no one ever will,” Guthrie noted. “In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s certain orchid growers in Florida would come to the Cayman Islands, especially Cayman Brac, and collect massive quantities of these orchids to ship back and sell. They also paid people in the Brac very small sums of money for the orchids that they collected for them. So, worrying that these orchids might get out into commercial production is like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.”

Guthrie noted too that the missing orchids had no detrimental impact on Cayman’s exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show, which went on to win a medal. “We wanted to be able to point out a couple of our endemic plants for interest but they were not necessary for the exhibit as a whole,” he added.

Guthrie said the rumours that the plants were being sold for vast sums of money may have started as a result of an idea that a marketing company in the UK came up with to auction the plants off for the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, before it had established that this is not allowed with CITES plants. Guthrie added that Cayman’s achievement at the show was significant and the fact that the Cayman Islands’ very first Chelsea exhibit won a silver medal was, in the horticultural world, equivalent to winning a silver medal at the Olympics and far more important than the seizure of the orchids.

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  1. Chris Randall says:

    The most significant question remains unanswered:  Why where the orchids sent to Holland in the first place?  British Airways flies directly from Grand Cayman to London several times a week; who, in their right mind, would ignore those flights and choose a roundabout route?

    • Andrew Guthrie says:

      Shipping through Holland was the only possible way our exhibit at Chelsea could happen.  The UK has a new rule that does not allow the import of potted plants from non-EU countries.  All plants from non-EU countries must be bare root.  Shipping bare root plants causes stress and had we shipped directly to the UK, our plants from Cayman and Miami would not have been in fit shape to exhibit.  Holland and most of the EU allows potted plants to be imported as long as you have all the necessary paperwork and inspections.  Also, we purchased as many plants in Holland as possible for our exhibit to cut down on costs.  We then shipped the Cayman plants and Miami plants to Holland nursery we were dealing with.  Once the plants were imported into Holland they could then be shipped to the UK without being bare rooted.  While we could have shipped the orchids directly to the UK as they were bare root it made more sense to ship them with all the other plants.  Had we shipped directly to the UK the orchids would still have been seized because the UK is part of the EU and we did not have a CITES import permit due to no one knowing about the new EU regulation imposing greater restrictions on CITES II plants – a regulation that the international CITES treaty does not require.  Another reason for not shipping on BA to the UK is the nightmare of shipping anything by BA into Heathrow.  We shipped all the non-plant items of  our exhibit  and BA lost and found our Cayman cat boat three times before we finally managed to get it and we barely got it in time for the Show because of this.  When plants get lost, they can die or be in such poor shape when found that they can’t be used.  Another for reason for shipping through Holland was that shipping on an actual freight plane from Miami to Holland was considerably cheaper than shipping to the UK on BA.  Shipping direct is not always the best or cheapest option, and except for 8 small orchid plants, all the other plants arrived safely and in excellent condition.