Petal Pushers

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

Kolopaking's lawyer, Lisa Newman Tucker, has an answer for the crackdown: She alleges that her client was a victim of international politics. The elder Kolopaking allegedly ran afoul of the Malaysian government some years back after officials accused him of poaching orchids from a preserve in Borneo.

The plants Harto Kolopaking toted in the suitcase were cultivated in a greenhouse, not plucked from their native habitat, Tucker argues.

"I've seen photographs of their nurseries," she says.
It's legal under CITES to import greenhouse paphs, as long as the plants are accompanied by the proper documentation. Tucker says her client didn't have the paperwork because "it takes time and it's expensive and it's political." Besides, he made a convenient target because "his father is very well-known."

Young Kolopaking himself is not available for comment -- he's back in Indonesia, having been allowed to return home until his sentencing. His father is "very ill," Tucker explains. A prosecutor in the case said Kolopaking was a safe risk to return for sentencing because he had posted a "pretty high" bail of $35,000.

The prosecution of Kolopaking coincided, according to Tucker, with a convention of officials from the roughly 125 signatory countries of CITES, including Indonesia. CITES bureaucrats meet every few years to discuss the treaty's enforcement and interpretation, which remains problematic and politically charged. This time, the site was in the U.S., in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

"It looks good for statistical purposes," Tucker says of her client's conviction.

"It's no coincidence," Thompson asserts. "It's not like [Harto Kolopaking] is some secret mastermind. Everybody knows what he's been doing. I have half a dozen of his plants. They were ripped off trees and arrived in boxes."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Hochman, who prosecuted the case in the Central District's Los Angeles office, denies that the timing was "directly connected" to the CITES meeting. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Nerney, Hochman's counterpart in San Francisco, declined comment.

The prosecution targeted the supply side of the contraband orchid market, but its message was extended to the demand side: Two recipients of Kolopaking's orchids, Ray Rands of Malibu and Joe Chiang of San Jose, were named in the press release issued by Hochman's office, and Rands was raided by Fish and Wildlife officials. Though publicly identified in a criminal enterprise, the two have not been charged. Hochman said his office was merely publicizing what was already a matter of public record. Rands was surprised to hear he'd been named. (Chiang could not be located.)

In a November 29, 1994, statement, U.S. Assistant Attorney Nerney asserts that the investigation is still active, and that "a number of Kolopaking's U.S. customers will be indicted as the result of the ongoing grand jury investigation."

"They're definitely making an example [of Rands]," says orchid wholesaler and collector Barnes.

Rands, a 70-year-old self-described Buddhist who claims he cultivates jungle orchids only to preserve them, sounded shaken after being fingered by the U.S. Attorney. He worked closely with the Kolopakings for 25 years, a period of time when prized orchids went to the highest bidder with the best connections to native collectors.

Even after the 1989 law elevated paphs to most-protected status, Rands says he continued to do business with the Kolopakings. Eyebrows went up in the orchid community when what appeared to be wild orchids surfaced in advertisements placed by Rands in publications like the American Orchid Society Bulletin, the glossy monthly bible of serious orchid growers. (The Bulletin has a policy of not running ads for protected plants.)

Rands says he assumes that plants are legal if they make it into the country through the various inspection points -- an assumption he clung to even when he never saw the papers that are required of all rare imported orchids.

In several long, rambling phone calls, he describes the Fish and Wildlife raid on his small nursery last May as "a heartbreaker."

Though Rands isn't critical of the government, the specter of prosecution has him fretting. When McCloud and other agents appeared on his premises, Rands says he immediately offered to surrender all 1,300 orchids he had bought over the past few years from Kolopaking (for a total of $28,000). Instead, the plants remain under his care. During one conversation, Rands interrupted himself to turn down the pressure cooker in which he was brewing a customized, sterile "stew" to feed his rare flowers.

Rands estimates that "another 30 or 40 people" could be tied up in the Kolopaking case. (Again, prosecutors wouldn't comment.) He says he knows of five who have been investigated, but because of his ambiguous legal status, he declines to say more.

Kolopaking's ultimate customers, the collectors for whom distributors like Rands act as middlemen, occupy the most arcane (and highest-stakes) niche in the rarefied world of exotic orchid trading and breeding.

"Jungle-collected plants appeal to a whole different group of people," says OrchidMania's Douglas Thompson. "They're the hobbyists who want their own little orchid zoos."

Orchids -- which number between 25,000 and 40,000 species, that is, pure-bred, naturally occurring, taxonomically distinct types -- are the largest plant family on earth. (Daisies come in a close second.)

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