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Orchid Hunter

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: November 26, 2002

 

Orchid Hunter homepage

For nine months in 2000, Tom Hart Dyke was a captive of guerrillas who seized him while he was collecting wild orchids in the Colombian rain forest. Now Hart Dyke is at it again in the most orchid-rich and one of the most politically unstable parts of Irian Jaya, the western half of the island of New Guinea.

In "Orchid Hunter," NOVA investigates an all-consuming passion that for some people seems to be more precious than life itself. Ranging from the scientific to the sociological, the program covers research at the forefront of plant biology and gives insights from New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief.

Long of interest to scientists because of their remarkable evolutionary history, orchids are equally exciting to collectors, who have made them a multibillion-dollar industry. Orchid lovers were recently dazzled by the discovery of a spectacular new species in Peru. With a magenta and purple blossom as big as a human hand, the flower has plant breeders eagerly anticipating a lucrative new line of flashier-than-ever orchids. The dream of discovering and naming such a crowd-pleaser drives some enthusiasts to desperate measures.

"I know that it's got political problems," says tireless orchid hunter Hart Dyke about his latest destination, Irian Jaya. "I know there's a lot of guerrilla activity there; I know that the terrain is terrible, and the diseases are rife, but that's why it's such a good place to go. If you want to find a new species of orchid, you've got to go to places that are dangerous because no one else goes there."

Prime motivation for the 25-year-old amateur botanist is the chance to make a discovery that he can name after his grandmother, who taught him on the family estate in England to love horticulture. NOVA accompanies Hart Dyke on his quest, which he well knows has a tradition of gruesome outcomes.

In 1901, eight orchid hunters went on an expedition to the Philippines. Within a month one was eaten by a tiger, another was drenched with oil and burned alive, five vanished and were never seen again, and one walked out of the forest with 7,000 orchid specimens. More recently, a botanical party in New Guinea was held hostage by insurgents for four months, and two of their members were beheaded when the Indonesian army attempted a rescue.

Orchids are one of the most ancient flowering plants; they evolved a survival strategy that dispersed them to every continent except Antarctica. They now number more than 25,000 species, each with an intricate relationship to animal pollinators (usually insects) and fungi in the soil. Fungi supply both nutrients for the growing orchid and food for the seed, allowing the plants to survive in habitats with poor or even no soils.

This close relationship to insects and fungi makes orchids vulnerable to extinction, which is why Hart Dyke's first order of business on arriving in Irian Jaya is to hire a local forester with a permit to collect orchids. (All wild orchids are protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.) Hart Dyke also enlists the services of Papua's two leading orchid experts. The program chronicles his discoveries in one of the last intact rainforest wildernesses left on Earth.

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Tom Hart Dyke, orchid fancier

Tom Hart Dyke, orchid fancier




Orchid Hunter Web Site Content
Orchid Gallery

Orchid Gallery
Sample the surprising diversity of orchids in this collection of 15 species.

A Plant With Smarts

A Plant With Smarts
Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean on how orchids bamboozle bugs.

Great Amateurs in Science

Great Amateurs in Science
Ten nonscientists who have made extraordinary contributions to science.

Classifying Life

Classifying Life
What a polar bear and a sea cucumber have in common.



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