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.

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.)

"Figure that one in every seven plants that occur in nature is an orchid," explains George Marcopulos, who heads San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Of the 600 or so different orchid genera, paphs are the strangest, most alluring and potentially most costly. Their value is enhanced because they are the only orchid genus to resist tissue culture, the technology that makes it easy to mass-produce plants.

"Orchid hobbyists tend to be wealthy and better educated," sniffed one law enforcement official, who asked to remain nameless. Celebrity orchid fanciers include the late Raymond Burr, who owned an orchid ranch in Fiji called the Sleeping Giant.

"I'm sure a lot of very wealthy people bought orchids from my client," says Kolopaking attorney Tucker.

Collectors lust after a contraband orchid for the same reasons connoisseurs seek a forbidden manmade masterpiece, according to prosecutor Hochman: "For its beauty, its rarity, its endangeredness." But it's a pleasure that can't be shared. "You can't show a black-market painting in your house," Hochman says, completing the analogy.

"Collectors are paying for the illegality," Barnes says, alluding to the Kolopaking affair. As the laws get tougher, the value of the illegal orchids will rise. "Look at the price of homegrown marijuana in California," he says. Ounce for ounce, Kolopaking's plants fetched nearly $400 an ounce -- close to the price of quality pot.

The price of pot is a function of measurable potency and supply; determining the price of orchids is more complicated. Aesthetic considerations as well as scarcity play a role, as does the sophistication of the collector. Undocumented claims of "new" or re-discovered species make fraud easier because, in most cases, the plants in question aren't yet in bloom. Buyers might not know what they've purchased for years until the orchid finally flowers.

A class of unscrupulous traders -- orchid cowboys -- has risen to service this gray-to-black market. Serpa tells a few tales about the cowboys of the outlaw paph trade, though he declines to name them publicly. But with the conviction of Kolopaking, Serpa gladly recounts a few stories about the Indonesian family.

Like most well-connected paph fanciers, Serpa knew of the orchid trader for decades, first doing business with him when the elder Kolopaking still used his given Chinese name, Liem Khe Wie. (He later changed it to Kolopaking to comply with Indonesian law.)

"He was notoriously dishonest," Serpa says with a shrug about the older man. "It's part of the culture. They don't look at it the same way we do. [Harto] Kolopaking probably wonders what the hell he's doing [being sen>tenced to] jail."

Back when the elder Kolopaking's wild-plant shipments were legal, they'd be sprinkled with duds -- allegedly new species that were really genetic quirks and that weren't taxonomically unique, as well as purportedly "natural" hybrids that looked like they'd been helped along by the cultivator.

Neither Serpa nor Barnes was surprised that Kolopaking was trading in illegal jungle plants. Barnes visited the family nurseries in East Java in 1988 and saw numerous specimens that would be forbidden a year later.

"The CITES ban took everybody by surprise," says Barnes. "He had 400 or 500 ... huge plants, 14 blooms per plant." Kolopaking was asking $150 for each, reasonable by U.S. standards, but "30 to 40 times what the plants cost him." Barnes doubts Kolopaking could have sold them all locally: "There's not a lot of people in Java who can afford $150." Barnes guesses that the plants found their way to overseas customers, one way or another.

As much as Serpa dislikes the Kolopakings, he scoffs at the idea that this conviction will deter the illegal orchid trade. Harto Kolopaking's just a token, Serpa claims. "The Japanese are the ones who make this thing happen. They do not care about habitats. They do not give a shit. They are circumventing this process very easily by finding other corrupt people like the Taiwanese. They work it."

Taiwan, which has not signed CITES, has become the collecting point for many of the orchids traded in Asia, legally or not.

Despite the difficulties in propagation, paphs have been cultivated in the West longer than any other orchids, dating back to 1823. Around the turn of the century, tastes in paphs shifted and "novelty" paphs, such as the ones Kolopaking was trading, became more popular.

These orchids are living symbols of Western empire: Paphs from European colonies in Asia, the Americas and Africa were transported to private conservatories in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, where they were dubbed with such names as "Rothschildianum," "Mr. Fairrie of Liverpool" and "Mr. Spicer, a tea planter," as noted in Timber Press' Dictionary of Plant Names (1987).

Today, there is even one paph honoring the Kolopakings, paphiopedilum kolopakingii.

Paphs exert a sensual pull.
"They're almost animal," says John Atwood, an orchid expert for the Selby Arboretum in Sarasota, Florida, who advises the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They are statuesque; they have a personality." When Atwood was a boy he bought his first orchid -- a paph -- and sold his bike to pay for it.

"Some [of the paphs] are really bizarre," says Tim Torbett, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at the San Francisco airport. (San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles are the only California ports through which CITES materials may be shipped.) "They look like they're made of plastic, not something that would be mass-marketed."

"If I were forced to grow one genus, I'd grow paphs," says cultivator Mike Serpa.

But for business reasons, Serpa raises many different genera. On a recent Thursday in the selling area of his nursery, there were a number of paphs in bloom on the benches. The paph pouches, about the size of a large thimble, were purple, the petals streaked with different hues of deeper purple and their leaves spotted.

Serpa is intrigued by paphs mostly because of the hybrids they produce: "You can cross a lot of cattleyas [the most common orchid] together and they're all cattleyas. But you can do paphiopedilums and something totally different in shape and everything can come out."

Breeding paphs is painstaking and slow. "Each one is individual," Serpa says. "Once it flowers, it's a long ways away from having even a division of that plant to sell. So the prices go sky high. That's the economic reason. Also, they grab people. There's a fascination for paphiopedilums. I don't believe that this whole business [of black-market orchids] would happen with very many other orchids."

Orchid growing is only the most recent of the 53-year-old Serpa's careers. The former owner of a welding and metal-fabricating business, he did much of the construction work on his 4,000-square-feet greenhouse in Alameda himself. He claims to have acquired many of his thousands of floral holdings through barter and breeding and boasts of never having spent more than $100 for a plant. Serpa opens his greenhouse to the public four days a week, greeting visitors in faded jeans and worn shirt. One day in January, over the course of a couple of hours, the only customers who visit are a middle-aged couple from Alameda bearing two orchids they're worried about. Serpa gives them some advice, reassurance and praise and sends them on their way -- without making a sale.

Serpa started buying tropical orchids in 1977, mostly from the Philippines. "It was reasonably inexpensive when you bought a paphiopedilum that was jungle-collected," he says. "Then, prices went up and the size went down. The ban came along and it became very difficult to get anything."

Now, "to be in really top form for a paph collection, you have to spend $500 or $600 at a time and go on from there," as hardcore collectors strive to own "that one single plant that no one else has." Serpa will "splurge once in a while and buy a flask of something." (Seedlings are grown in sterile flasks before being placed in pots.) His paphs sell from $10 to $50 or $250 or more for a particularly prized "stud" -- a reliable breeding stock.

The Kolopaking case inspired a lengthy feature article in the January 8 Chronicle "Sunday" section, headlined "Black market orchids: A global underground smuggling network may drive rare species into extinction."

Reporter Jim Doyle described "the dark side of horticulture," peopled by "orchid hunters" who "hopscotch the globe" and deliver smuggled plants to hobbyists who openly display them at flower shows. "Greedy" collectors are the cause for orchids' extinction in the wild, according to the law enforcement authorities quoted by Doyle.

Also according to Doyle, smuggled plants undercut the prices of those grown in the nursery. Dedicated fanciers scoff at greenhouse plants, he wrote, because their blooms are predictable, and "that's boring."

Serpa calls the extinction-by-overcollection thesis "bullshit." Habitat destruction caused by development, not overcollecting, is what's really killing orchids, he says.

Robert Hamilton, a horticulturist at UC Berkeley and a California Orchid Society member, agrees. The only collecting that poses a measurable problem is when locals take quantities of them for their own use. "Most decorative orchids are stripped from the rain forest for [local celebrations like] Christmas festivals and thrown away" after their flowers fade, Hamilton reports.

Doyle's story also ignored the issue of Western conservationist ideology at play in the Third World.

"What CITES has done for elephants and crocodiles in the Nile is great," says OrchidMania's Thompson. "For orchids, it's the exact opposite."

Having rendered many wild orchids an "illegitimate commodity," the CITES strictures remove the incentive for anyone to save orchids trampled by new logging and development.

Although CITES makes provisions for salvage, no country has established a legitimate collection/salvage program where plants would be removed from threatened habitats and nurtured in greenhouses.

Thompson emphasizes the irony: Native collectors are prohibited from sending an orchid out of the country to someone who will help it breed, but loggers and road builders are free to torch the orchid-sustaining forests.

That leaves orchid preservation to freelancers -- which is how Rands views himself -- or outlaws, which is the way law enforcement authorities characterize Kolopaking. Rands argues that by the time wild orchids are accessible enough to be gathered, their habitat is already seriously endangered.

"It's not like you send a guy into the jungle with a sack and a machete," Rands says. Collectors come in only after roads have been bulldozed and fields cleared. The ensuing pesticides, erosion and air pollution are enough to finish off any remaining orchids.

Oddly enough, orchid collectors and other rare plant and animal enthusiasts benefit from the destruction of habitat, Serpa points out.

"Your front door" to the rain forest "gets further and further in," he says. "You find things that people weren't able to get in to. They're discovering [animal and plant life] in China and Vietnam that they previously thought were gone." The same thing is happening in South America.

But, says Florida orchid expert John Atwood, "Orchids are not jaguars. They produce an awful lot of seeds," upward of 15,000 -- millions, in some cases -- the size of dustmotes. "They can blow three or four miles away. We think of them as rare plants, but it's just that we can't find them. I'm afraid what population biologists are seeing" -- when they declare paphs forced out of their habitats -- "is the tail end."

A species can be saved by someone with the lowest of motives. That's what happened to one of the most prized paphs, the paphiopedilum rothschildianum. One poacher stripped a colony bare before the habitat was destroyed. He was convicted in the British courts, but enough plants had made it into collectors' hands for the species to continue.

"Is he a hero?" Atwood asks. "I won't say he is, but there are problems with conservation measures."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hochman disagrees with the orchid collectors. "These governments may not have a lot of money for the enforcement of their laws," Hochman says, "but they're very intense in their beliefs" against the commercial exploitation of wild orchids. "The owner of a [wild] Indonesian orchid is the Indonesian government."

True salvaging "comes down to getting permission from the country of origin," says the USDA's Torbett. "Granted, there aren't many countries that have the expertise, but it's up to them to determine whether those plants will leave their country."

A few orchid fanciers like Hamilton and the San Francisco Orchid Society are independently exporting their expertise to the Third World. Last November, Hamilton and three other people delivered to Ecuador the machinery needed to sustain the clean-room conditions that orchid propagation requires.

Hamilton remains skeptical about the ultimate value of his efforts, however. "A number of us feel the best place to preserve orchids is ex situ" -- that is, outside their native territory. Third World populations are simply growing so quickly that it's "hard to preserve land" for wild flowers.

Preservation may be the goal of some members of the orchid community, but for others the mere desire to own an endangered plant drives them to obsession. These are the "junkies." They can be found at all levels of the collecting hierarchy.

There aren't many junkie stares among the 70 to 80 people attending a recent monthly meeting of the California Orchid Society at Oakland's Lakeside Park Garden Center, near Fairyland on Lake Merritt. They look like hobbyists, model railroaders maybe. Their nondescript clothes -- functional jeans, slacks, sweaters and windbreakers -- contrast with the elegant orchids they carry in from their vans and station wagons. Interestingly, many of the smaller specimens are on sale for less than $10.

Although the ranks of local orchid fanciers include at least one retired industrialist and others supporting what can be a costly habit, the people on this night in January have the pasty look and modest demeanor of librarians. They interact quietly. The only flamboyance present is in the blossoms and shapes of the plants. After all, a true orchid breeder spends hours each day alone with his charges, studying their most minute variations. There's a sense that most would prefer the company of mute green things.

Orchids give them a common language. Abbreviated versions of Latin names -- paphs and "phrags," or phragmipediums -- are tossed around. An outsider soon learns to stop trying to puzzle out their meaning and use them like the slang they are.

OrchidMania's Thompson once explained how he and others "got hooked because someone gave us [an orchid] when it was in bloom. Then all the flowers fell off and we ran out and got another one and soon we were addicted."

It's not as simple as it sounds, though. From the more common types of orchids, true "addicts" soon graduate to increasingly sophisticated plants, ones that may be harder to grow -- or harder to find. One-upmanship is rampant, though usually polite.

The crowd at the Garden Center is almost completely white, with a few Asian and black faces, and tends toward middle age. Men outnumber women by about two to one. One member figures it's probably the oldest orchid society in the state because it was able to claim "California" in its title.

About an hour before the 8 pm start of the business meeting, 25 to 30 people have gathered in the judging room, just around the corner from the main hall and about 30 feet square. Off to the side, a camera on a tripod points at a small, chest-high platform positioned between two floor lamps, a ready-made portrait studio for any deserving plants. Boxes of index cards are stacked on a shelf, and a folding table is strewn with bound back issues of orchid magazines. A few botany texts and reference books are also to hand. The volumes are regularly consulted by different people as they inspect the 10 orchids, each with a number draped around it, sitting on a table. Six, it turns out, are paphs, with their telltale pouches and bat-wing petals. (Paphs tend to bloom at this time of year.)

These plants have been submitted for formal evaluation. The judges, and some students learning to judge, break up into groups of five or six, one plant to each group. (Some orchids have been culled at this stage because they didn't deserve further discussion.) Judges pull out plastic rulers and hold them up to different parts of the plants, calling out the measurements in centimeters and tenths of centimeters. A verbal dissection follows. Again, textbooks are referred to, as are past awards photographs and records.

The objects of all this attention are graceful plants. Their beauty is obscured by these dogged efforts to isolate their elements and quantify their aesthetic appeal in terms that will stand up in the record books. As scores are tallied and different aspects of the plants' anatomies are evaluated, it sounds like a bridge game.

A great deal of attention is paid to keeping these manmade standards consistent. They are the currency, the common denominator, of the professional orchid world.

The hand of man may eventually save orchids -- but not necessarily through law enforcement. Hamilton argues that market forces will do the trick. The illegal orchid trade will wither away simply because cultivated orchids, even paphs, are so much more pleasing to people than wild ones. Barnes agrees. "There's no reason for people to be taking them out of the jungle."

Orchid economics favor cultivation, too. Once it has produced greenhouse offspring, a treasured jungle oddity can be reproduced in such volume that it becomes a common hothouse plant.

That's what Barnes and his employer, the Rod McLellan Co., are looking for. Recently, they sold several hundred paphs to Safeway. "That," Barnes adds, "is anathema to keeping the paph mystique alive." McLellan has five species of paphs under cultivation.

As one of the country's largest orchid wholesalers, which counts other orchid nurseries among its customers, McLellan shipped 200,000 orchids last year. Of those, 35,000 were paphs. "If it doesn't bloom in three or four years, we don't want it in the greenhouse," Barnes says.

Even successful intervention by law enforcement authorities can mean they end up killing the plants in trying to save them. Since it's too costly to return them to their countries of origin, most go to U.S. Interior Department-certified "rescue centers." One of the newest is at the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, which was added last year at the instigation of head curator George Marcopulos.

So far, no paphs have shown up. "Where they are I wish I knew," Marcopulos says of Kolopaking's hoard. "I could restore the collection." For Marcopulos to accept them, he'd have to speed up renovations of his own greenhouse space, since 40 percent of the 12,000 square feet is "unusable." Although the government doesn't pay rescue centers anything, it permits them to propagate from the confiscated specimens. The mother plants remain U.S. government property.

This lopsided approach -- "rescuing" orchids from thieves but having no facilities to care for the plants after retrieval -- underscores collectors' conviction that the government is best left out of the orchid protection business. That belief is grounded partly in hubris; respected collectors have invested years of their lives and significant sums to achieve their status.

The closed society of orchid fanatics promises to pull itself in tighter as the prospect of government censure -- and even jail -- looms for these otherwise law-abiding flower lovers. Still, their passion for the plants abides. Tweezer-toting, self-educated botanists will continue trying to tease out yet another valuable variety; dedicated breeders will continue to pay premiums for rare species, no matter what their source.

Like other underground economies, the orchid trade is abetted by the clannishness of its participants. "If I sneeze in Malibu," Rands says of his orchid brethren, "they'll hear it in New York the next day."

So if federal law enforcement officials do step up CITES enforcement, orchid growers at the highest echelons will be reaching for their handkerchiefs.

And questioning why.

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