Book review: The Scent of Scandal by Craig Pittman
SUMMARY: This recent book chronicles the collision between human greed and international laws governing trade in endangered species
Image: Achamore (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)
You can see them in windows of houses whilst driving along the road. Go to a florist or to a gardening store and there they are, and botanical gardens are positively lousy with them. I'm talking about orchids -- it seems like everyone likes orchids. But some people like them a little too much. It's these people who are the focus of Craig Pittman's recent book, The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid [University Press of Florida; 2012: Amazon UK/kindle; Amazon US/kindle].
Reading this book is like watching a car wreck in slow-motion: you know what's going to happen but you can't look away. Except in this case, you rather want to watch, just to make sure everyone receives some form of retribution for their many misdeeds, almost as if the car is full of our current crop of politicians. But the characters in this book aren't career politicians, they're scientists and orchid fanciers, although they ape politicians with astonishing ease and finesse.
And this isn't a story about politics. Well, not exactly.
This is a story about a tropical flower and the curious cast of people who are attracted to it, who are obsessed by it and who will do anything to possess it regardless of the cost. The flower is a rare ladyslipper orchid, unknown to science, that had been purchased by an amateur orchid collector at a small roadside stand in Moyobamba, Peru in 2002. Easily confused with some of its close relatives, this orchid is hard to miss when it blooms; its intense fuschia-coloured flower is as big as a man's hand.
Michael Kovach was the American orchid collector who wanted to share this lovely plant with the world -- but only after he ensured his immortality by having this new species named for himself. This is where the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens enters the picture. Located in Sarasota, Florida, this is one of the world's foremost botanical gardens dedicated to collecting and researching epiphytes -- plants that live on other plants. Specialising in orchids and bromeliads, Selby Gardens has expert taxonomists on staff who describe species that are new to science.
To get this dramatic plant to Florida, Kovach smuggled it out of Peru in the company of several hundred very similar-looking orchid species so officials wouldn't notice it. A few hours after returning home, Kovach walked into the Selby gardens, plant in-hand to show it off to the scientists there. As he expected, as soon as they saw the new orchid, the Selby botanists were dazzled, and they readily agreed to formally describe the plant and name it for Kovach. Perhaps a bit too readily, since no one at Selby bothered to examine the papers and certificates that are supposed to accompany legally exported and imported species.
The ensuing shitstorm is detailed in this book. Along the way, the reader meets an unwieldy cast of unscrupulous and unlikeable characters, most of whom had their own petty scores to settle and personal axes to grind. Like a formally prepared botanical specimen affixed to cardboard, the reader is transfixed as individual avarice and profiteering predictably collide with international laws governing trade in endangered species.
Astonishingly, throughout this entire sordid affair, Kovach remained estranged from the truth -- so much so that it's impossible to untangle his web of deceit to ascertain whether he believed his own kaleidoscope of fabrications. But it is obvious that his motives extended beyond merely contributing to scientific knowledge. Since this rare "slipper" orchid was fetching as much as $10,000 on the black market, it would appear that Kovach was harbouring some grandiose get-rich schemes. But he was hardly unique in that respect, since the same was true for nearly everyone who first set eyes on the spectacular blossom.
The only likable character was the orchid. Yet throughout the entire book, that spectacular orchid remains aloof and enigmatic, the focal point for everyone's fantasies and desires. It was almost as if humans had been transformed into epiphytes themselves. By the end of the book, I almost felt sorry for the orchid because obsessive human greed transmutes it into a sort of floral Maltese Falcon.
As a scientist and plant lover myself, I was disappointed that the author, an investigative journalist who covered this story for the St. Petersburg Times, didn't provide many details about the natural history of this species or about orchids in general, neither did he provide information about captive orchid propagation or hybridization nor even an overview about the destruction of natural resources due to poaching. Instead, the book focuses on what happens when greed, betrayal and obsession collide with national and international laws designed to protect natural resources from over-exploitation. But if you love orchids or true-crime stories, this fast-paced mystery will certainly appeal to you.
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Craig Pittman is an award-winning environmental journalist who is a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species [2010: Amazon UK; Amazon US] and co-author with Matthew Waite of Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss [2011: Amazon UK/kindle; Amazon US/kindle], both published by the University Press of Florida. A native of Florida, he lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and two children.
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