Petal Pushers

Orchid collectors, watch your back. Uncle Sam knows what you're up to.

His loot was wild orchids.Harto Kolopaking, the 28-year-old son of a prominent Indonesian orchid grower, flew into LAX last September carrying 216 rare, jungle-grown orchids in his large suitcases. Passing through customs, he checked in at an airport hotel. A short time later he was showing some collectors, including Ken McCloud, his exotic and endangered flora.

Looking over the cargo, one of the visitors asked Kolopaking how much he wanted for the flowers. About $13,000, the seller replied, prompting McCloud to step forward and identify himself as an undercover agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. McCloud arrested Kolopaking for smuggling an endangered species into the country and confiscated the valuable plants.

In a San Francisco federal court last December, Kolopaking pleaded guilty to the charges and faces an unprecedented 10 to 16 months in federal prison when he is sentenced March 20. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District in San Francisco promises even more indictments as part of an ongoing investigation of orchid smuggling.

Authorities brag that Kolopaking is the first person in the U.S. to face a jail term for smuggling orchids, a move that federal prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles say is intended to "send a message to the orchid community," the often fanatical collectors whose aggressive pursuit of their passion may now put them at odds with the law. The prosecutors' message is succinct: Own the wrong flower, go to jail.

The Kolopaking prosecution follows a five-year-old international ban on the trading of nearly all wild orchids. The ban, an adjunct to the worldwide wildlife treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), is intended to preserve the plants in their native habitat. But the orchid community refutes the treaty's effectiveness.

"It's government propaganda," says orchid enthusiast Douglas Thompson.
Thompson is a former producer of the annual San Francisco Orchid Society show (scheduled for February 25-26 at Fort Mason) and president of the nonprofit OrchidMania, whose yearly Mother's Day weekend orchid sale finances orchid-education and AIDS-support programs here and abroad. Wild plants do need protection, acknowledges Thompson, who has collected orchids for nearly 20 years and has a sizable personal cache, but prosecuting people like Kolopaking isn't the answer.

"There will always be a way to get [a protected] plant from the risk taker to a collector," Thompson says.

The Kolopaking investigation began in May 1993, when a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector in the Oakland international mail facility opened a package Kolopaking sent from Indonesia to a U.S. collector. Marked "sample material," the box contained a cache of 60 tropical Lady Slipper orchids, known to fanciers as "paphs," members of the genus paphiopedilum, one of the rarest and hardest to cultivate. Lady Slipper orchids mainly come from Asia, parts of India and Southeast Asia.

The well-publicized bust that followed showcases the conflict between orchid fanatics -- who insist that they are preserving endangered plants -- and the customs and wildlife authorities who must enforce CITES. It also reveals a lucrative subterranean trade and the allure of these stunning flowers, which have been celebrated in the fiction of Rex Stout, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the natural history of Charles Darwin and the paranoid ramblings of former CIA spycatcher James Jesus Angleton.

"You can get a lot of money out of [orchid collectors]," says Mike Serpa. Serpa consummated his own 20-year affair with the plants by opening his own nursery in 1993, Alameda's Bay Island Orchids.

"When I do sales, I watch the doors open at 10 am and I can pick them out. I know I can get everything they've got in their pocket, their credit cards, their checks," says Serpa, a past vice president of the California Orchid Society. "You can see it in their glassy eyes."

What attracts these buyers? The blatant eroticism of the plants, the sensuous undulations and curves that Mapplethorpe made scandalous? The cachet of collecting something rare and beautiful?

Tropical paphs are prized for their odd colors and strangely shaped blooms. Petals run to greens, whites and purples, with dark stripes and hairy-looking attachments. Lady Slippers' trademarks are pouchlike petal formations, suggesting scrotums.

"They look like what they are -- sex organs," notes Carson Barnes, a paph fancier and a wholesale sales agent at the Rod McLellan orchid company in South San Francisco. Indeed, the very word "orchid" is derived from the Greek word for "testicle."

Kolopaking and his family had long done a steady business in tropical orchids; according to one of his regular stateside customers, Kolopaking had ignored the importation ban for four years after paphs were elevated to most-protected status under CITES.

So why did authorities suddenly crack down on the Kolopakings, known for decades throughout the top tiers of the orchid world? And why did the secretive family, which seldom does business face to face, allow the young Kolopaking to fly into the U.S. carrying suitcases stuffed with paphs poached from Asian jungles, the kind of plants that are almost never allowed to leave their country of origin?

Money is the answer to the second question. It can take years of care to produce a flowering paph from a seedling, while a paph snatched from the wild -- and on the brink of blooming -- can fetch from $1,000 to $5,000 on the black market -- sometimes even $20,000. The $13,000 Kolopaking demanded of his "customers" is big money in a country like Indonesia, where the peasants who discover and dig up a wild paph may be paid only a nickel. In addition to the suitcase plants, there were 1,300 more paphs Kolopaking admitted to having smuggled into the U.S. in 1992 and 1993. Prosecutors peg the retail value of that haul at $150,000.

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