112 ‘threatened’ Himalayan medicinal plants, but conservation plans in place for just 5 | India News

High in the Himalayas, thousands of species of medicinal plants have been growing and thriving for centuries. In India’s Himalayan region, one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, 1,748 species of medicinal plants have been identified. But with increased commercial collection, unmonitored trade, habitat loss and unsustainable harvesting, 112 plant species are now threatened, the first comprehensive study in India’s Himalayan states has found. And of those, conservation plans are in place for only five.
“There is very little data on the status of medicinal plant populations. The extraction of high-value medicinal plants has not always been well managed. In addition, local and indigenous communities depend on the ecosystem for food. medicines, fuel and fodder,” said Dr K Chandra. Sekar, a scientist at the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and corresponding author of the study, told TOI.
So, they set out to document all endangered medicinal plant species in 12 Himalayan states – Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and parts of Assam and West Bengal – covering 5.3 lakh km2 of hilly forest area.
They found 112 such plants – seven Critically Endangered, seven Endangered, five Vulnerable, one Near Threatened and four Data Deficient. The other 88 were threatened, but of “least concern”. The most endangered medicinal plants were found in Jammu and Kashmir (64), followed by Himachal Pradesh (60) and Sikkim (50). The species most at risk were found in Himachal Pradesh (11), followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand (nine each).

“But appropriate conservation approaches were only assigned to five species,” the study says. This includes Coptis teeta (an endangered plant in the buttercup family), Gymnocladus assamicus (a 17m tall deciduous tree), Illicium griffithii (a flowering plant), Lilium polyphyllum (white lily) and Nardostachys jatamansi (a small perennial herb with a rhizome). “The remaining 14 species need immediate and appropriate conservation approaches, otherwise they risk extinction in the near future.” In fact, even the population of four species that are now categorized as ‘least concern’ have declined due to habitat destruction. “These species are likely to be endangered … (and) require specific conservation efforts.”

Coptis teeta, an endangered plant from the buttercup family, is used to regulate blood pressure

polyphyllum lily

Lilium polyphyllum or white lily of the Himalayas, is used against respiratory disorders and in skin care

Prior to their study, there had been no extensive documentation of endangered medicinal plants in the Himalayas. “Some information was available through the IUCN – they update the nine categories of threatened plants every year based on information gathered from published literature.”

Illicium griffithii

Illicium griffithii, a flowering plant known for its antifungal properties and used against food poisoning and sinusitis

Globally, medicinal and aromatic plants have been prioritized for conservation primarily because of their commercial value. The market price of parts of these medicinal plants ranges from Rs 20 to Rs 12,000 per kilogram. But collection practices remain a contested space. The regulated sectors pass through a long chain of intermediaries — collectors, farmers, wholesalers, industrialists. The indigenous communities that live in and around the forests where these species are found may not go through these channels, relying on centuries-old practices but not always paying attention to sustainability. One example, Sekar said, is the critically endangered Aconitum chasmanthum. “It is one of many species of Himalayan Aconite which are heavily traded for medicinal purposes in India…When collected, the whole plant is uprooted…The unsustainable practice continues and more than 80% of the wild population in the Himalayan region has declined.”

gentian kurroo

Almost all parts of Gentiana kurroo are used in Ayurvedic and Unani medicine

The main challenge, Sekar explained, is that these plants need very specific conditions to grow and maintain their medicinal properties. To date, 7% of threatened medicinal plants are conserved ex situ, ie outside their habitat. But if conservation measures that transfer plants – such as gene banks, seed banks or seed herbariums – are important, area-specific measures may be urgently needed. Sekar said, “A plant’s location defines the habitat it lives in, which is unique, especially for high-altitude plants living in extreme conditions. These plants would not be able to survive in an alien environment, which makes location an important factor in the level of threat to which a plant is subjected.

Alvin J. Chase