India’s wild medicinal plants threatened by over-exploitation

24 November 2008 | International news release

India is a hub of the wild-collected plant medicine industry in Asia, but key species have declined due to over-collection to supply domestic and foreign medicinal markets, according to IUCN and TRAFFIC researchers.

The report focuses on seven plant species of conservation concern protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Wild plant species form the foundation of healthcare practices throughout much of Asia, particularly traditional practices, such as traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Tibetan medicines. Compounds such as reserpine from Snakeroot and paclitaxel from Himalayan Yew have important pharmaceutical uses in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Some species are in demand for their aromatic properties too. The use of Jatamansi oil dates back over 1,000 years, whilst Red Sanders is also in demand for its timber and as a source of red dye. In India, collection and processing of medicinal plants contributes at least 35 million workdays per year to the poor and under-employed, but rising demand is threatening this vital source of livelihood income both in India and elsewhere.

“The importance of these long-traded plant species to local livelihoods cannot be over-emphasized,” says Danna J. Leaman, Chair of IUCN’s Medicinal Plant Specialist Group. “But we need the best possible information about the extent of regional and global trade to ensure sustainable supplies can continue to support family incomes long into the future.”

Many of the medicinal plants in trade in India are collected in alpine regions of neighbouring Nepal, where collection of species such as Jatamansi and Kutki runs to hundreds of tonnes of rhizomes, harvested by thousands of collectors who supply middlemen to large-scale wholesalers in Nepal and India. Raw materials are often transported on to wholesale markets in Delhi, Amritsar and Kolkata for onward sale.

“With regard to trade in Himalayan medicinal plants most, though not all, roads lead to India, which is both a major manufacturing centre and end consumer market,” says TRAFFIC’s Teresa Mulliken, an author of the report.

India has a highly developed herbal and pharmaceutical products manufacturing industry, although trade patterns are shifting for some species and China is a growing manufacturing centre for products such as taxanes (derived from Taxus spp).

Researchers from TRAFFIC and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, examined the trade in seven medicinal plants species with very different life histories, uses and trade patterns, to give a broad overview of Asia’s medicinal plant trade. India emerged as a major destination for trade in all but two of the seven species studied - Desert Cistanche and Himalayan Yew.

But all seven species are declining through over-harvesting, although not necessarily of the plants themselves. For example, Desert Cistanche, native to China and Mongolia, is also declining because the trees it parasitizes are harvested for timber, fuelwood and fodder. All the species are protected under national legislation and international trade controls—the latter through listing in CITES, which requires international trade to be maintained within sustainable levels, but despite these measures, wild populations continue to decline.

“Although controls on the collection and trade in medicinal plants exist to bring harvesting levels within sustainable levels, their implementation is frequently poor,” says Mulliken.

Cultivation is routinely promoted as the answer to dwindling supplies and over-collection of wild medicinal plants, and research into cultivation has been carried out for all seven species studied.

“Cultivation may appear to be the answer, but it’s not always that straightforward,” says Mulliken. “Some species are difficult to grow in artificial conditions and cultivation may be unprofitable for farmers owing to the long growing time between planting and commercial harvest.”  Growing times for some species can be several years.

“Much less emphasis is being put on development and promotion of sustainable wild collection practices, which may be the only viable option to ensure sustainable supplies of some of these species,” says Mulliken.

TRAFFIC, BfN, the IUCN/SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group (MPSG) and WWF Germany recently launched a new standard on the sustainable collection of wild plants (International Standard for Sustainable Collection of Wild Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, ISSC-MAP), which is currently under trial at several projects worldwide including one in Uttarakhand in the Western Himalayas and one in Karnataka in the Western Ghats.

“TRAFFIC India is delighted to be at the forefront of helping ensure the sustainability of medicinal plant supplies, which is to the benefit of healthcare within India and beyond, to India’s plant industry and to many rural poor, who depend on the trade for vital household income,” says Samir Sinha, Head of TRAFFIC India.

The report recommends regional, multi-stakeholder action to improve management of harvests and trade in a way that addresses conservation and development concerns.

“These conservation challenges cannot be met by single countries: international co-operation is needed between harvesters, traders, manufacturers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and researchers to secure a sustainable future for these medicinal plants and the people who depend on them,” says Uwe Schippmann, Head of the Plant Conservation Section of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz, BfN), which commissioned the report.

Specific recommendations are aimed at securing sustainable sources of medicinal plants through achieving better implementation of regulations, including those linked to CITES, and obtaining better information on the trade, market trends and the status of the species traded, current collection practices and those involved in the harvesting.

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of IUCN and WWF.

For more information please contact:

Sarah Horsley, IUCN Media Relations Officer, +41 22 999 0127, sarah.horsley@iucn.org

Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC Global Communications Co-ordinator, +44 7921 309 176, Richard.thomas@traffic.org

Samir Sinha, Head, TRAFFIC India, +91 11 41504786, ssinha@wwfindia.net

The seven species studied for the report were:

Desert Cistanche (Cistanche deserticola), native to China and Mongolia, its dried stems have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of conditions including kidney problems, constipation, impotence, and infertility.

Elephant’s Foot (Dioscorea deltoidea), native to Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Lao PDR, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand and Viet Nam, the dried rhizomes are used both as traditional medicine in higher elevation regions of Nepal, Bhutan, northern India and Pakistan and southwestern China to treat a variety of mainly gastric problems, and as a source of steroidal drugs for western medicine.

Jatamansi (Nardostachys grandiflora), native to China, Bhutan, India and Nepal, the roots and rhizomes have been used for centuries in India in the treatment of fits and heart palpitations, to treat constipation and regulate urination, menstruation and digestion.

Kutki (Picrorhiza kurrooa), native to India and Pakistan, whose rhizomes are widely used in Ayurvedic and Unani traditional medicines in India as an antibiotic and to treat liver ailments.

Red Sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), native to India, its heartwood is used in the treatment of diabetes and to reduce inflammation, and the timber is used to make furniture and as a source of red dye.

Snakeroot (Rauvolfia serpentina), native to Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Indonesia, India, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam, the roots have been used for centuries in India in the treatment of various central nervous disorders, including anxiety states, maniacal behaviour associated with psychosis, schizophrenia, insanity, insomnia, and epilepsy. Extracts are also used for the treatment of intestinal disorders and as an anthelmintic.

Himalayan Yew (Taxus wallichiana), native to Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Viet Nam, the bark and leaves are used in India in Unani medicine as a sedative, an aphrodisiac, and for the treatment of respiratory diseases and snake bites and scorpion stings, whilst in Ayurvedic medicine it is used in the treatment of headache, diarrhoea and other ailments. In recent years, it has been used as a source of taxanes, which have found worldwide use in the treatment of certain cancers.