orchid
Image: TIME DAVENPORT/WCS

CALANTHE SYLVATICA, a semi-aquatic orchid from the Makete district of the Southern Highlands.

Many species of wild African orchids are threatened because of an increased international demand for their roots as a culinary delicacy, according to research from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The report, released this week, documents for the first time the growing body of illegal trade between Tanzania and neighboring Zambia. "Millions of orchids are being virtually strip-mined from Tanzanias Southern Highlands," says co-author Tim Davenport, a WCS conservation biologist. "At current rates, many species will be wiped out in a matter of a few years."

Davenport and his colleague Henry J. Ndangalasi of the department of botany at the University of Dar es Salaam interviewed approximately 60 people with direct knowledge of the orchid trade. Their report suggests that as many as 85 species of orchids (see image) could be at risk of extinction. Africans harvest the plants from the Southern Highlands region of Tanzania and transport them to Zambia for use as food. A delicacy known as "chikanda" or "kinaka" calls for the boiled roots of terrestrial orchids, termed tubers. The report conservatively estimates the trade in tubers to be more than 2.2 million per year.

All orchid species are currently protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which requires the certification of any plants crossing international borders. Tuber harvesters, however, frequently cross into Zambia undeterred, often disguising their orchid payload as potatoes. Historically many Tanzanian locals ate orchid tubers, according to the report. But the growing market in Zambia now far outweighs local demand, and the majority of the harvestingnearly 90 percentis currently done for urban customers in Zambia. The border city of Tunduma, where the orchid market accounts for close to a quarter of a million dollars in business, is at the heart of the trade.

The WCS is currently backing an effort to turn a section of the Southern Highlands, the Kitulo Plateau, into a national park. The scientists note that although the monetary value of the illegal trade is significant, it pales in comparison to potential tourism revenue. Unfortunately, the Southern Highlands area is losing portions of its natural resources at an alarming rate, which hampers tourism development. "The current trade in orchid tubers for consumption in Zambia is neither environmentally nor economically in the best interests of Tanzania," Davenport notes.