Himalayan medicinal plants threatened by climate change

  • The medicinal plants of the Himalayas are threatened by climate change.
  • The results call for a reorientation of conservation strategies.
  • The new research provides information for policy makers to identify suitable sites for future conservation.

Medicinal plants in the Himalayas are under threat due to climate change, which calls for a review of current conservation strategies, including protected parks in the mountain ranges, according to new research.

The findings of two new research papers come even as the latest Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of the impact of climate change on natural and human systems .

A study in Sikkim from Bhim Rao Ambedkar College, University of Delhi, analyzed the potential habitat distribution of 163 medicinal plant species under current and future climate scenarios in 2050 and 2070. maximum species distribution” which combines observations of species occurrences, with environmental information, to project the future distribution of species.

Analysis of Sikkim, which is part of the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot, indicates that the majority of medicinal plant species are found in the tropical and subtropical Himalayan regions of Sikkim between 300 and 2000 meters. altitude. Most of them are likely to move up and north in future climate scenarios.

According to the study published in Green Computing reports. More alarmingly, some 13-16% of the region’s medicinal plant species are at risk of losing their habitats by 2050 and 2070. The results highlight that species that are restricted to specific areas and have a narrow height distribution “are species most vulnerable and likely to become extinct due to climate change in the Himalayas,” the study warns.

The study by researcher Manish Kumar of Bhim Rao Ambedkar College also attempted to identify the most suitable areas for conservation and to test the effectiveness of the existing protected area (PA) network in conserving medicinal plant species. in current and future climate scenarios.

Wildflowers in spring in Sikkim. High altitudes have a significant effect on the phenology or life cycles of plants, often influencing their size, seasonal growth and flowering, and even the type of pollinators they attract. Photo by Pradeep Kumbhashi/Wikimedia Commons

It shows that only five of the eight protected areas in the Sikkim Himalayas are effective in conserving medicinal plant species in current and future climates. “The boundaries of existing PAs need to be expanded to accommodate upward shifts in the spatial distribution of species, particularly in the case of PAs located in lower elevations or tropical regions,” the study recommends.

“These PAs occupy the most suitable habitats for Sikkim’s medicinal plants,” Kumar told Mongabay India. “The main problem with the design of existing PAs is that they are ‘static’ in nature, and once their boundaries are defined in the official notification, they remain so,” he says.

“The need of the hour is to make them ‘dynamic’, that is, to systematically and periodically evaluate them and realign their boundaries as the need arises”, for example due to the effects of climate change or changes in land cover, he says. . The research also indicates that the most suitable habitats are between 860 m and 2937 m above sea level, which could serve as very suitable habitats for the Sikkim Himalayan medicinal plant species. Conservation actions could focus on these areas to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Perhaps it would be best if conservation actions and protected areas were designed in and around the mid-altitudes of the Himalayas, as these are the areas that would likely emerge as the areas that would harbor the maximum medicinal plants at the time. future,” adds Kumar.

“We need to redefine the boundaries of existing protected areas for more effective conservation,” says Kumar.


Read more: At the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary in Arunachal, communities work with forestry officials to conserve orchids


In parallel, a second modeling study for the periods 2041-2060 and 2061-2080, relating to an endangered medicinal plant Picrorhiza kurroa (Royle ex Benth) in the Uttarakhand part of the Himalayas. The plant, locally known as kutki Where kadu, is one of many globally important medicinal plants in the Himalayas that are highly sensitive to climate change and are threatened, due to their narrow range and small population size. The study, conducted by a team of researchers from Dehradun-based institutes, aimed to identify the most critical environmental variables affecting P. kurroa distribution, and predict current and future suitable habitats for P. kurroa under various climate scenarios.

He found that “overall there is a decrease in the habitat of P. kurroa in climate change scenarios. Areas very suitable for P. kurroa in Uttarakhand were mainly in Chamoli, Bageshwar and Pithoragarh districts. Some sites in Rudraprayag and Tehri districts were also very suitable for P. kurroa., Uttarkashi District has good growth potential.

“Overexploitation and unscientific extraction of endangered medicinal plants is a threat to its survival,” says Saurabh Purohit, of India’s Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun and one of the study’s authors.

The image shows four different plants flowering in the Himalayas
(Clockwise from top left) Rhododendron arboreum, Hypericum patulum, Archangelic angelica and Berberis aristata, are some of the medicinal plants found in the Himalayas. Photos by Manish Kumar.

Future conservation and nature-based solutions

Scientists recommend a combination of conservation strategies to counter predicted losses and rethink conservation strategies. The authors of both studies say their research provides information for policy makers to identify suitable sites in the wild for conservation.

Dehradun scientists propose a three-pronged approach to protect P. kurroa: first, to predict potential suitable habitats for P. kurroa under different climate change scenarios; track and monitor natural or anthropogenic factors that aggravate habitat decline, and strengthen research on the ecological characteristics and habitat of P. kurroa.

“It is high time that we started to evaluate our conservation actions, our conservation policies and our conservation designs from a scientific point of view,” says Kumar. “We need to integrate the effects of climate change into our policy framework, especially as the Himalayas are warming three times more than the global average.”

KS Kanwal, a scientist at the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Dehradun, who specializes in environmental impact assessments on biodiversity and ecology, says there is an urgent need to strengthen in situ and ex situ conservation measures to reverse the loss of endangered medicinal plants. It also suggests the conservation of threatened medicinal plants in PAs and the designation of certain areas as ‘new’ Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCA).

Himalayan ecosystems are highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, but there is little work on assessing the impacts of climate change on medicinal herbs in the region, he says. Some recent studies have shown that climate change is affecting the range and diversity of medicinal plants in the Himalayas; and influencing their phenology or period of flowering and vegetative growth, which ultimately affects their productivity. Temperature changes impact the secondary metabolites of medicinal plants.

Strict enforcement of local and international laws can improve the situation, Purohit says.

Also, increasing the cultivation of endangered medicinal plants can save them from extinction in the wild, Purohit adds. “This would meet the ever-increasing demand for medicinal plants in local and international markets and reduce the burden of wild medicinal plants.”

During the COVID-19 period, the demand for herbal medicines has increased up to three to four times, which has increased the pressure on collecting herbal medicines that are already depleted from the wild, Kanwal says. “One of the main reasons for the depletion is the overharvesting and overharvesting of medicinal plants in the Himalayan region,” he adds.

The image shows a village overlooking a valley in Sikkim
Rapid urbanization and consequent fragmentation of habitats and natural forests have grown exponentially in Sikkim, shrinking the space for its rich biodiversity to flourish. Photo by Goyaldevender/Wikimedia Commons.

Kanwal offers habitat mapping for threatened plants; ex-situ conservation in medicinal plant gardens, implementation of sustainable harvesting protocols, long-term monitoring and documentation of endangered medicinal plants among measures to reverse the decline. Kanwal suggests a host of possible nature-based solutions for conserving rare and endangered medicinal plants in the Himalayan region, such as promoting cluster cultivation of endangered medicinal plants; cultivate them to restore degraded or abandoned land; and the establishment of model nurseries, genetic resource centers and germplasm repositories to provide farmers with high-quality planting material.

Possible solutions for the sustainable production of Himalayan medicinal herbs suggested by Kanwal include training Himalayan communities in the production, processing and marketing of medicinal plants; promote education in the conservation of medicinal plants among young people.

Areas of high exploitation and high threats should be reserved for in situ conservation programs, Kumar says. One example is the World Wide Fund for Nature’s People and Plants initiative in the Dolpo region of Nepal, which may be successful in conserving medicinal plants through the use of indigenous knowledge and traditions. “Approaches like this not only meet conservation goals, but also ensure sustainable livelihoods and economic benefits for local tribal people,” says Kumar.

Purohit points out that nature-based solutions such as the traditional concept of “sacred groves” and the revitalization of indigenous traditional knowledge can conserve endangered medicinal plants and could help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. “Policies should be made exclusively for alpine meadows regarding restricted access of people,” he says.


Read more: Sikkim’s urban sacred groves mitigate twice the carbon of a natural rural forest


Banner image: Fruit shrub of Elliptical rubus, or the Himalayan yellow raspberry, native to China, Nepal, the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Alvin J. Chase