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Wild orchid tuber collection in Iran: a wake-up call for conservation

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Wild orchids are traditionally harvested as Salep and used in traditional medicine and ice-cream production in Iran. Recently however, illegal harvest of wild orchids for export appears to have grown. This study aimed to: (1) determine the diversity of harvested wild orchid species and their collection sites in Iran; and (2) study the current harvest status and trade chain and volume to estimate the total orchid plant extraction from natural populations. Field surveys of collectors and market surveys of traders were conducted to establish the diversity of collected species, to identify harvest hotspots, and to document harvesting and trade volumes. Sixteen species and subspecies from 7 genera of Orchidaceae are collected for their tubers. Based on estimates from the 2013 April to June harvest season more than 24.5 tons of fresh tubers were collected from three districts in Golestan province alone. It is estimated that this amount of tuber requires the lethal destructive harvesting of 5.5 –6.1 million orchids, with a market value of 320,000 USD. In the Tehran Bazar Salep trade during May–July 2013 was 1.9 tons of dried tubers, with estimated retail value of 310,000 USD. Current orchid collection practices in Iran, which have soared in recent years due to international demand, do not seem sustainable as all tubers are collected destructively. To preserve orchid populations, in the longterm, establishment of specific Orchid Conservation Areas and introduction of sustainable production practices, could alleviate harvesting pressure. In the midterm, development of a DNA barcoding-based molecular identification system could help to monitor and control illegal trade. In the near term, effective implementation of collection bans in excessively harvested areas and strengthening of current regulations are necessary to avoid the catastrophic effects of harvesting on orchid populations, as has been observed in Turkey.

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  1. Names for all species are provided in Table 1. Species not included in Table 1 have author names included in the manuscript body.


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The authors are indebted to local plant collectors and traders for their cordiality and cooperation. We also gratefully acknowledge the Carl Tryggers Foundation for Scientific Research for providing a postdoctoral research stipend to AG (through HdB). HdB is a research fellow at Naturalis financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Further support for fieldwork was gratefully received from an Anne S. Chatham fellowship of the Garden Club of America (AG), Sven och Dagmar Saléns stiftelse (HdB), Lars Hiertas Minne (HdB) and the Swedish Science Council Swedish Research Links program (HdB).

In Memoriam: Farzaneh Naghibi passed away in early 2014. She was an inspiration to all of us, as well as to a generation of Iranian researchers in ethnobotany and pharmacognosy. She will be remembered for her focus on quality and innovative research and her openhearted hospitality. She was an active coach for young researchers both male and female, providing opportunities for aspiring students to fulfill their ambitions, show their dedication, and develop their independence.

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Correspondence to Hugo de Boer.

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Communicated by Danna J Leaman.

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Ghorbani, A., Gravendeel, B., Naghibi, F. et al. Wild orchid tuber collection in Iran: a wake-up call for conservation. Biodivers Conserv 23, 2749–2760 (2014).

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