Rare Cayman ghost orchid in bloom

Conservation Law aims to protect Cayman’s endangered flora and fauna

The subtle cream color of Cayman’s Ghost Orchid makes it hard to spot, dangling from a tree by a slender stem in its once-yearly bloom. The orchid, Dendrophylax fawcettii, is critically endangered and found only on Grand Cayman.  

Tucked into the back corner of the Turtle Farm, the Grand Cayman Ghost Orchid is in full bloom this week. The orchid didn’t start its life in West Bay. It first bloomed in the Ironwood Forest, but Orchid Society members rescued it from land clearing there almost a decade ago.  

The Orchid Society donated two of the flowers to the Turtle Farm in late 2006. Both were affixed to trees overhanging the Blue Hole on the tourist spot’s nature trail. The orchids took a few years to make a home on the new trees above the sinkhole but have bloomed annually in late April or early May since 2008. 

“All of the orchids on the [endangered] list are associated with natural, undeveloped habitat,” said Conservation Council chair and orchid specialist Christina Rose-Smyth. “Preserving areas of undeveloped habitat saves not just orchids but trees, birds and frogs,” she added.  

The National Conservation Law, which is being adopted piece by piece by the new Conservation Council, creates legal protections for endangered or threatened species. The protections went into effect on Earth Day, April 22. 

The new law gives the council the authority to review permit or license applications for activities, including real estate development, which would threaten the habitat for endangered species. The council can’t prevent development, Ms. Rose-Smyth said, but if there’s an endangered species in the area, “the thrust from then on would be to find a way to minimize destruction to the species.”
In the case of the ghost orchid, Ms. Rose-Smyth explained, the best option is to preserve the land. 

The Conservation Law also calls for the council to develop conservation plans for threatened or endangered species included on the new endangered list. 

The law includes a new list of more than 200 protected species in the Cayman Islands, about 50 of which are listed as endangered. The list covers a wide range of plants and animals, from blue iguanas and sea turtles to periwinkles and the swallowtail butterfly. There are four orchids listed as critically endangered in the law. 

The Grand Cayman Ghost Orchid is one of those listed as critically endangered, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that as of 2008 there were 1,000 to 3,000 individual plants still in the wild. Real estate development in Bodden Town and the Red Bay area of George Town, according to the group, has destroyed much of the orchid’s natural habitat. The only remaining natural populations are in the Mastic Forest and George Town’s Ironwood Forest. 

Department of Environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said some species, like iguanas, already had legal protection through the Animals Law or Marine Conservation Law. But, she said, “This is the first time that any of Cayman’s plant species have had any legal protection, and it is also the first time that many of our endemic animal species have had any legal protection.”  

It is now illegal to take or possess endangered orchids or any of the other plants and animals on the list. “We will eventually be producing a Conservation Plan for this orchid, along with others, which may include some additional protections, but this plan will have to go out for public consultation and be approved by Cabinet before it can be adopted,” she said. 

Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said, “Having a species on the schedule does not automatically protect its habitat. The only way that habitat can be protected under the law is for it to be made a protected area or for the land owner to enter into an agreement with the government.”  

The only way under the Conservation Law to protect land, she said, would be if government bought the property to preserve as a natural area. 

International Union for Conservation of Nature researchers say the orchid’s population has dropped by 80 percent over the past three decades due to habitat loss. Some of the flowers saved from land clearing in 2006 were also moved to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. 

Scientists don’t know exactly how the Grand Cayman Ghost Orchid reproduces, but suspect the large sphinx moth, which grows to the size of a small bird, may be the only pollinator that helps the flower reproduce. But if that hypothesis is correct, Ms. Rose-Smyth said, the orchid could be in even more danger, because the plant the moth uses for breeding is itself rarely found on Grand Cayman anymore. 

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A Grand Cayman Ghost Orchid in bloom at the Turtle Farm. The critically endangered flower blooms just once a year. – Photo: Charles Duncan