"Invisible" wildlife trade

16 Sep 2015 NUS researchers have uncovered a previously overlooked part of Southeast Asia's illegal wildlife trade: the illegal sale of wild-collected ornamental plants.

Southeast Asia is a global center of illegal wildlife trade. Alarming, however, the illegal trade in some species still remains completely undocumented. Such is the case with Southeast Asia's illegal trade in wild ornamental plants--primarily orchids that are widely prized by enthusiasts for their beauty, fragrance and/or rarity.

During surveys of illegal wildlife markets across Thailand, a team led by Dr Jacob PHELPS and Prof Edward WEBB from the Department of Biological Sciences in NUS has identified more than 400 species of ornamental species in commercial trade, including a number of threatened and endangered species. Several of the species they found in the markets were even new to science.

The research brings attention to a trade that has, until now, been invisible: not represented in official government databases and overlooked by conservation groups. This study highlights the need to protect Southeast Asia's plants not only from deforestation and habitat loss, but also from illegal trade. Moreover, it highlights that illegal wildlife trade does not only threaten charismatic animal species, but also a huge number of plant species.

The study has garnered not only media interest, but also the attention of TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network, and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which are publishing a policy-oriented report highlighting findings from the study. The researchers hope this new attention will motivate conservation groups, Thailand and neighboring ASEAN countries--including Singapore-- to do more to include botanical conservation in their efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

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Dr Phelps stands in front of giant, wild-collected specimen of Vandopsis gigantea on the Thailand-Maynmar border. [Image credit: H.Watson]

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Wild Dendrobium sp. from Laos sold on the Thailand-Myanmar border. [Image credit: J.Phelps]



1. Phelps J, Webb EL. "Invisible’’ wildlife trades: Southeast Asia’s undocumented illegal trade in wild ornamental plants." Biological Conservation. 186 (2015) 296.

2. Phelps J. "A Blooming Trade" Policy Report for TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network & Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). (In Press).

3. Vermeulen JJ, Phelps J, Thavipoke P. "Notes on Bulbophyllum (Dendrobiinae; Epidendroidaea; Orchidaceae): two new species and the dilemmas of species discovery via illegal trade." Phytotaxa. 184 (2014) 012.