CITES and lunacy

Ernie DeMarie via pbs
Wed, 12 Nov 2014 15:03:25 PST

I also find this discussion of sharing rare plant seeds and CITES, etc quite interesting, and of course infuriating at the same time.  Let me start with CITES.  In principle, it is supposed to stop trafficking of rare animals and plants from wild sources, and that is an admirable goal.  But the folks that enforce it often make no distinction between cultivated, artificially propagated material (though they do downgrade restrictions on seed and tissue cultures, I believe) and wild stuff.  As to what happens to seized materials, from my BG experiences some years ago, yes, plants that are seized can be sent to a BG, but the BG may not do anything with them other than grow them, although it may distribute propagations from them IIRC. Keep in mind that by the time the plants are received by the bg they are often dead or damaged beyond recovery.  Some tough ones, however, may arrive in decent condition.  Now as a desert plant curator, what did I see in these seized shipments?  Some
 times it did consist of interesting obviously wild collected cacti or other succulents which were worth incorporating into the collection but more often it was garbage, like the time we got a seized shipment of grafted multicolored gymnocalyciums from Vietnam.   Or hybrid Christmas cactus.  It didn't matter, they were cacti and therefore needed CITES permits.  Now except for a (common) species of Rhipsalis found in Africa, no species in the Cactaceae is native to the Old World, so why would these man made hybrids/mutations be treated the same as wild collected plants?  Theoretically the bg could not throw them away until they "died".   Of course, things do "die" if they never get water or potted up, and to be honest no one is checking but still, the concept is ridiculous.  
As for trade in seed of cultivated rare plants, the scientific problems some organizations have with it, mainly native plant "purists", are greatly overshadowed by the degree of habitat destruction and anthropogenic climate change that together have pushed us into the 6th great mass extinction since the Animalia and, later, Plantae, evolved.  We as a species are the cause of this one.  It is a problem that will only accelerate in the near future.  I teach AP Environmental Science so I have seen the stats and the data, and it isn't looking good.  The problem is so bad that to worry about "genetic purity" and the harm of hybridization is minor compared to the larger issues facing rare plants.  A hybrid which captures some of the original gene pool is better than no genetic remnant of a species at all after it habitat is wiped out.  
While it is true that invasive species are a concern everywhere, it also is the case that most introduced plants either do not naturalize or if they do they often become well integrated into natural communities without overpowering the natives.  The ones that do overwhelm are a serious problem, and biocontrols are probably the only good way to deal with them so that their populations are subject to the same checks that native species usually have.  But there are some native species that can also overwhelm, poison ivy and black locust being good examples of plants that would be considered invasive in their home ranges if they weren't actually native.   In the long term, it is quite possible that biodiversity may be enhanced by the addition of new species as they evolve into different species over time, specifically in the depauperate glaciated floras of North America and Eurasia.  I don't think this is true, however, for species rich floras like Australia and South Africa.  It
  would be wise for horticulturalists to note invasive tendencies of new introductions and to be careful not to introduce them into areas where they are likely to be a problem such as local biodiversity hotspots like in parts of California and Florida. 
As for actual plant/seed trading, I think each person has to make up their own mind about what is right.  I personally see no harm and great benefit in distributing rare species far and wide, as a hedge against their likely extinction in the wild due to habitat destruction or, later on, climate change.  I also think more folks should dedicate a refrigerator or freezer to preserving seeds of such plants, either can greatly extend the viability of most seeds.  Would that someone had thought of that a few decades ago when the brightly colored cultivars (selections from a wild population that is now a developed area in Mexico) of Phlox mesoleuca were around?  They all disappeared from cultivation as far as I know save a white one I have seen in someones garden.  Where are the bright yellow and red ones that were commercially propagated back in the 80s?  
Folks who work for botanic gardens are by their nature more restricted in what they can do because they are under greater scrutiny than ordinary folks and things like the Biodiversity Convention (that gave rise to the concept that nations own their plant and animal species and that they should be "compensated" if they are used for profitable purposes outside the country--a fine concept in principle but utterly impractical in reality) have to be taken seriously by them, whether they agree or not with the Convention.  Individual gardeners have more leeway than official organizations simply because the governments of most nations have better things to do than to track down people growing rare plants of cultivated origin.  So I think it would be prudent not to put oneself in possible jeopardy by sending all your rare CITES or other listed plants to PBS or other public plant/seedlists for distribution, but rather do propagate whatever is rare and get it out to as many folks as you
  can who also share concern for the loss of plant species and wish to do what they can in our short lifetimes to preserve a species from extinction.  Some of the more attractive endangered plants are great tools for educating the public about the need to preserve habitats whenever possible, but if the public never gets to see nor grow these plants, they remain unconcerned because it is all too abstract for them.  
Perhaps growing a rare California native in an area of California where it might hybridize with a related nearby species might be an issue, but if you are living in another state or country it shouldn't be an issue at all, unless the species has great invasive potential, which is unlikely for most rare plants.  I've read that some folks have purposely planted Venus Fly Traps in bogs/swamps in other states. I think that is a great idea for a truly unique species with a limited natural range that is in danger from timber plantation activities and development in its native range around Wilmington NC.  One day it may be those ex situ populations that will be the only "wild" populations of this species, who knows, but it does give the species a better chance at survival as wetland across the south are drained and "developed" and their unique flora (including most sarracenias) goes with them.  
So I wouldn't worry too much about what we do as individuals to improve the chances of a plant species ultimate survival during our lifetimes, regardless of legislation.  The flora and fauna of the world belong to us all, as do genes (the very idea of patenting a naturally occurring gene is truly nuts in my view, and just a ploy by corporations to profit off of what nature created, how can something that already exists be "patented"?).  What is more important is that all of us with the knowledge and horticultural skills to help a plant species or two survive through our efforts do so, it is one way that our lives become meaningful in the grand scheme of things. 
Ernie DeMarie
Z 7 NY where my gardens could be considered a refugia for a lot of South African species and some native US ones that are facing or likely to face challenges to their continued survival in their native ranges. 
-----Original Message-----
From: Erik Van Lennep <>
To: pbs <>
Sent: Wed, Nov 12, 2014 12:34 pm
Subject: [pbs] CITES and lunacy

Following this discussion with great interest.

When I was doing a lot more plant exploration than recently (1970's and
1980's) it was standard practice for endangered plants seized at the point
of import without CITES papers to be sent to incineration. Endangered
animals were euthanised.If the border boys could say, "nope, we didn't let
none of them CITES things through", I guess that was 'job well done'.

Presumably that has changed a lot since then, but what happens to all the
plants and animals which are not taken in by botanic gardens or zoos? CITES
is designed by and administered by "bean counters", so applying the letter
of the law is what counts to them, not survival of the organisms as
individuals, nor the species as a whole.

It was started as a broken system, and seriously needs public and vocal
discussion leading to a thorough overhaul.



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