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Medicinal plants

Mike Ives, Rishikesh, IndiaMay 6, 2014

As global demand for medicinal remedies intensifies, Indian experts say many endemic species of wild medicinal plants from the Himalayas are being over-farmed. Some of the affected plants may never grow back they say.

Flowers bloom in the foreground, with Himalayan mountains in the background
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Ganges flows briskly through Rishikesh, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in northern India. For many followers of Hinduism, Rishikesh is considered a pilgrimage site. The Beatles came here in 1968 to study meditation and write music. Today the town is filled with yoga studios, as well as healers who offer Ayurvedic therapies.

At an Ayurveda clinic about a dozen patients wait in line as pharmacologists in lab coats fill prescriptions in a cramped dispensary. They tap powders into paper wrappers and drop colored tablets into plastic jars.

The clinic's head doctor, Dr DK Shrivastava, describes Ayurveda as an ancient practice where doctors diagnose ailments by taking a patient's pulse and looking at his or her eyes and tongue.

Dr Shrivastava in his office in Rishikesh, India
Dr Shrivastava says he tries to convince locals to farm wild Himalayan plants sustainablyImage: Mike Ives

"We believe our body is natural and we can cure it in a natural way," he explains. "This is the ancient principle of Ayurveda."

The majority of the Ayurvedic pills and powders are made from medicinal plants that grow naturally in Himalayan alpine meadows, a couple of hundred kilometers north of here. The plants are used against a variety of ailments: from headaches to fevers, and even morning sickness.

Wild plants disappearing

But as international demand for the medicinal plants rises, scientists say many wild Himalayan varieties are being picked at unsustainable rates. Shrivastava says over-harvesting of wild flowers places the whole future of Ayurvedic medicine in jeopardy.

"Some medicinal plants are going to be lost and we need to protect it," he says. "Otherwise generation to generation the plant quality is going to change."

According to recent scientific studies, the threat to Himalayan medicinal plants is increasing. Scientists at HNB Garhwal University in India found that over-harvesting and habitat degradation has already led to the extinction of 150 Himalayan wild plants. Some 70 percent of medicinal plants in this region were subject to destructive over-harvesting they found.

Over-harvesting is particularly problematic for wild flowers in India as, in contrast to commercial crops, most wild flowers to take years to grow. The issue is also a problem in neighbouring Nepal. There, the world’s most expensive medicinal fungus, Yarsagumba, also known as 'Himalayan Viagra,' is in serious decline due to high demand from Chinese buyers.

Ayurveda medicines from India
Ayurveda remedies are used to fight headaches, fevers and even morning sicknessImage: Mike Ives

Few controls

Although climate change and animal over-grazing are altering the ecology of alpine meadows to some extent, the largest threat to high-altitude plants is clearly unsustainable harvesting, says Arjun Singh Kathait from the state medicinal plant board in Uttarakhand.

"All over the world, people are taking an interest in herbal products and the market is growing," he explains.

"Indian pharmacies are importing raw plant material from Nepal and they are exporting it to China. Now, the Indian companies have no material. That's why the demand for high-altitude plants is rising."

Kathait says the Indian government began passing legislation to protect medicinal plants in 2000. Some laws ban the cultivation of certain plants, while others encourage cultivation in gardens.

But, even if the Indian government offers more incentives for legal medicinal plant cultivation, plant collectors from border areas with China and Nepal will still see a market for wild plants he says. Another problem is that alpine meadows usually aren't well policed by forest rangers.

Farming 'wild' flowers

Some Uttarakhand farmers are now cultivating endemic medicinal plants commercially, partly in order to help reduce demand on wild plant populations. At the Shri Prem Nagar Ashram in Haridwar, a town near Rishikesh, scientists are growing plants on site and then preparing them for sale.

Wild plants being cultivated in the Shri Prem Nagar Ashram in Haridwar, India
Wild plants being cultivated in the Shri Prem Nagar Ashram in Haridwar, IndiaImage: Mike Ives

The ashram has a small factory where plants are ground up in metal contraptions the size of washing machines. But according to the scientists here there is often a shortfall between demand and supply when plant traders come to Himalayan villages looking for material. That usually prompts some villagers to make up the shortfall by picking wild plants, they say.

According to Arjun Singh Kathait from the medicinal plant board, a farmer in this area earns at least 500 rupees (6 euro, $8.30) per kilogram of medicinal plants picked. It's a very good price for farmers who struggle to make ends meet, he says.

Back at the Ayurveda clinic in Rishikesh, DK Shrivastava says he advises local villagers to either grow medicinal plants themselves or harvest the wild varieties in an environmentally-sensitive way.

"If you use 50 percent of the plant for medicinal purposes and leave 50 percent behind, the plant will grow and grow," he explains. "The remaining fruit and seed will be useful for the re-growth of the plant."

Still, Shrivastava believes, alpine plant biodiversity is bound to decline here, simply because the financial incentive to pick medicinal plants remains so high. The question, he says, is how many Himalayan alpine plants will go extinct before demand levels off.