The CITES Permit from Hell

CITES and the Orchid Enthusiast

or the Permit from Hell
On Wings, January 1997 Volume 3:1

Carson E. Whitlow. CITES - Blueprint for Extinction. (12/31/93). Information is condensed from the original article with author's permission.

The well-intentioned concept of CITES was born from an attempt to curtail exploitation of wild plants and animals that possibly could lead to their extinction. However, in reality, CITES neither encourages production of artificially propagated plant material or establishes reasonable cooperative breeding programs. Consequently, many valuable species in the wild will be lost due to unnecessary and counter-productive interference from excessive bureaucratic red tape.

Complaints from many commercial and private individuals regarding the administration of CITES are ignored. Since there are no formal rules and regulations to administer CITES,  the Office of Scientific Authority (OSA) and Office of Management Authority (OMA) enforce "guidelines" or "advice". Requests for copies of any rules and regulations which would interpret these "guidelines or advice" go unanswered. Apparently the OSA and OMA do not have to tell anyone what the rules are and not only that, they can change them at whim.

If a permit is difficult to obtain (even when plant sources are legal) and the basis of the rejection is challenged or questioned, the FWS, which administers CITES, requests even more documentation. Carson Whitlow has endured over ten years of submitting repeated requests and "necessary" documentation so that he may add a species to his permit only to have the OSA and OMA deny permission.

The Office of Scientific Authority (OSA) is a consultant to the Office of Management Authority (OMA) which issues the permits. Documentation is required even for our own native orchids. Mr. Whitlow obtained a "Permit for Artificially Propagated Plant Material" issued for Appendix II - "Threatened" plants, specifically orchids. Appendix I contains the list of "Endangered" plants and this list contains some orchid species, but not the ones he was requesting. He grows and artificially propagates several native American orchid species and produces artificial hybrids from them.

For him to include a plant(s) on his permit, he must show that they were legally removed from the wild and that the removal was not detrimental to the existence of the species in the wild. He must show that the plants are being grown successfully and assure their long-term maintenance. None of the original collected material (i.e. back portion of the rhizome or similar material resulting when the plant was in the wild) may be exported.

The OSA requires that at least five plants of a species, or three plants if general cultivation, must be maintained as a base population. (That is, five plants must be maintained indefinitely from artificially propagated material) By the way, this is one of those unwritten requirements which appears nowhere and to which permit holders have no input.

These conditions also apply to hybrids, whether of natural or artificial origin. CITES Conference Resolution 2.12(c) defines "artificially propagated plants" as plants grown by man from seeds, cuttings, callus tissue, spores or other methods and controlled conditions. For example, if you have five plants this year that are "artificially propagated" but next year you only have three, these are not considered "artificially propagated."

Conversely, if you have 500 different rare species plants from which you are producing propagations for export, you must increase that population to 2,500 before any can be exported. Furthermore, you can send hundreds of wild collected plants out of the country without being required to maintain any of them, but if you decide to only collect one plant and propagate it by division or seed, you must maintain it indefinitely and have in excess of five plants before exporting any. Therefore, there is no incentive to propagate such plants.

Mr. Whitlow read an article written by Dr. Victor Soukup in a 1977 issue of The Mid-American regarding "Cypripedium daultonii, sp. nov." which was described as a "new" species. The article also mentioned the efforts of a Mr. Jim Daulton to have the species properly identified by competent botanists. Mr. Whitlow contacted Dr. Soukup for more information and was able to meet with Mr. Daulton to obtain a plant. The plant he took was nearly washed out and would have been lost in the next flood. Most of these cypripediums in this area had been washed away by two decades of severe floods. Mr. Daulton was given permission by the owner of the property to collect plants in this area, and so this plant was legally collected. Once home, Mr. Whitlow carefully potted the specimen and while doing so found a young seedling in the soil. This seedling was also carefully planted.

In 1982, he applied to have the Cypripedium daultonii included on his Certificate of Artificially Propagated Plants. He was denied by the OMA three months later because they stated the plant was a rare and recently discovered taxon from Kentucky. They did not request documentation that would show if the plant's removal was detrimental or non-detrimental to their survival in the wild. Several other species were denied as well because "these plants are generally rare or restricted in distribution throughout their range."

Mr. Whitlow continued requesting the inclusion of these two plants on his permit and appealed when refused. At the end of 1984, he sent in a request to renew his Certificate and included the Cypripedium kentuckiense. The request was denied in November 985 according to the OMA because "you have recently [in 1983] supplemented your stock with wild-collected material, even after our department informed you of the rarity of this species."

It wasn't until September of 1986 that the OMA decided they wanted to know that the collection was legal and removed in a manner not detrimental to the species in the wild! Mr. Whitlow complied and sent additional information and a signed statement from Mr. Daulton which clearly described how the plants were collected, the reason why they were collected and the fact both had permission to do so. The article from The Mid-American regarding this plants' site and history was also included. No response was received.

In March 1988 the inclusion of Cypripedium kentuckiense was again denied because the OMA had finally decided that the removal of the original plant was detrimental. They suggested that an appropriate conservation official might obtain a few stock specimens from suitable populations for propagation purposes. Remember that this is the plant the OSA and OMA believed was so rare that they denied adding it to Mr. Whitlow's Certificate. They criticized him for suggesting that other such material be collected, but FWS suggested he could get more plants from sites where these plants were removed by "approved" collectors, i.e. conservation officials. Does this sound reasonable or logical to you?

Following another appeal, on August 1988 the OMA responded that "this is a flood plain species capable of surviving floods" and the plants were again denied from being added to Mr. Whitlow's Certificate. The species is in fact a floodplain species and individual species are often washed out when streams change course. Yet, irony of ironies and contradiction of contradictions, the OMA continued to base their denial on the unfounded opinion that removal of this plant by Mr. Whitlow was detrimental to the species' existence in the wild!

Later in September of 1989, the OMA stated (based on an advisement by the OSA) that " ...while it is stated that the mature plant removed in 1979 might have been washed out, there is not sufficient information that it would have been, that it might not have flowered and dispersed its seed before being washed away, or that it would not have become established at another site. Even the seedling inadvertently collected with the mature plant may have survived the site downstream." What?!?

Mr. Whitlow provided the information he had when he made the first request to add this species to his Certificate. It did not take a genius to observe that the plant he removed was in eminent danger. How could the OSA and OMA expect him to know whether by some miraculous, intricate working of nature the seedling might survive downstream?

Then in August 1993, the OMA replied that ". . .the OSA had determined the plants collected did not meet the Service definition of salvage (the removal of specimens from areas or habitats targeted for destruction) and therefore were detrimentally removed from the wild." The OSA and OMA could not see the opportunity to save a rare species of orchid beyond the mountain of the paperwork they had generated.

CITES has failed to do what it was created to do.

Part 2 of the Cypripedium kentuckiense Caper.

Removal from the wild of plants cultivated prior to CITES do not have to meet the non-detrimental survival rule. In 1983 Mr. Whitlow removed two back divisions from plants J. Daulton had planted in his yard in the 1950's. OSA and OMA requested that these developed plants be included on his permit as artificially propagated plants. In March 1988 the OMA denied the request!

Their 'rationale' was that "these two stems are not pre-CITES since they were acquired by the applicant in 1983, and we expect they were propagated in the late 1970s or early 1980s from the original specimens; therefore, the artificial propagation criteria in Resolution Conf. 2.12." must be applied with no pre-CITES limitation. We believe that the removal of the specimens in the 1950's may have been detrimental to the species' survival, so the propagation stock has not been established in a non-detrimental manner as Resolution Conf. 2.12 requires."

On appeal, this decision was overturned in favor of Mr. Whitlow. He now had choices. He could obtain another permit and export the plants without being required to maintain any material; or could maintain five propagated plants and then export them.

In January 1993, the OSA still recommended denial of the pre-CITES stock. "We therefore recommend denial to export specimens from the pre-CITES stock until the applicant had provided appropriate assurances that adequate specimens from the denied Cypripedium kentuckiense stock were being preserved in cultivation."

In other words, they threatened him with bureaucratic black-mail. Their ultimatum was "Either do what we want with the plants we denied and have no jurisdiction over (Cypripedium kentuckiense) or you won't get what is legally yours (the pre-CITES plants).

Two specimens of Cypripedium kentuckiense were finally approved by the OSA and were added to Mr. Whitlow's permit, but only because they were collected by a well-known scientist who was studying the population. Mr. Whitlow, thus, has to maintain ten specimens of the species because each came from two different areas. (Again, this is one of those requirements that is an unwritten rule)

The criteria for artificial propagation of hybrids are the same as for species. The hybrid must be maintained indefinitely and there must be sufficient stock. Either you must maintain five plants of each of the parents or maintain five of the hybrid. If your parent stock should die, none of the hybrids of which you may have hundreds, would qualify as artificially propagated, nor could they be listed for export.

A newer Conference Resolution 8.17 is clear in its definition regarding artificially propagated plants. "The term artificially propagated refers only to plants grown from seeds, cutting, divisions, callus tissue or other plant tissues, spores or other propagules under controlled conditions." Controlled conditions include the cultivated parental stock used for artificial propagation and must be managed "long-term" (not indefinitely). There is no requirement for maintenance of artificially propagated material, only of cultivated parental stock which may or may not be artificially propagated. However, another of Dr. Whitlow's appeals was denied even after he informed the OSA of these new rules.

The OSA and OMA can make their own definitions for permit requirements. These definitions need not be the same as the ones in the Conference Resolutions; yet, we must follow their guidelines while they follow none. The preceding story clearly illustrates the lack of accountability by governmental agencies.