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close this bookMedicinal Plants: Rescuing a Global Heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)
close this folder3. India
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View the documentProtecting medicinal-plant biodiversity

Protecting medicinal-plant biodiversity

In 1970, the Indian Government banned the export of wild-growing sarpagandha. because of over-exploitation. This ban still holds except when special government permission is obtained. Further additions to the list can be made based on the purchases and marketing of medicinal plants by the indigenous pharmaceutical industry. Since a very large proportion of plants used by these industries are collected from the wild, high consumption, especially in a manner that is destructive, is considered a reasonably accurate indicator of the threat to their survival in the wild. This threat is higher wherever the collecting is destructive (i.e. whole plant, root, stem, and bark.).

Furthermore, many medicinal plants are threatened because of the alarming rate of habitat loss and degradation of natural ecosystems. The traditional healthcare systems (Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha) are conscious of the decline in raw materials and the need to establish cultivation centers to maintain supply. Many of the pharmaceutical companies have not yet accepted the decline in supply as serious.

Many papers have been published on threatened plants of individual States of India. Jain (1987) identifies 120 medicinal plants that can be classified as endangered or rare. A total of 30 plant species known for their medical usage in South India are considered in the "rare and threatened" priority category. Many other species are threatened because of the alarming rate of habitat loss and degradation of natural habitats, including:

· aconite (Aconitum heterophyllum) - root used for fever, cholera, rheumatism, and fevers;

· Saussurea lappa - root used for chronic skin disorders;

· agar (Aquillaria agallocha) - wood used for reducing vomiting and diarrhea, and as a stimulant;

· lesser yam (Dioscorea deltoides) - tuber rich in diosgenin (from which steroidal drugs can be made); it is also used for rheumatic and ophthalmic diseases;

· Justicia beddomei - whole plant;

· Myristica malabarica - seed used for ulcers;

· Coptis teeta - rhizome for bacillary dysentery;

· Dendrobium pauciflorum - whole plant, leaf; and

· Podophyllum emodii.

The Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) has assembled a priority list of 285 medicinal-plant species of South India. They list 34 species classified as weeds. Many of these weeds are well-known medicinal plants of indigenous healthcare systems. Because of unregulated and large-scale destructive collecting, many of the "weeds" could become threatened. Due to a lack of information on distribution, harvesting intensities, and population structure of wild medicinal plants the FRHLT has used the available secondary data to set its conservation priorities. The data base is being enlarged by adding data on threatened status recorded in the WCMC's database and also assessments of experts on the rarity of the species.

Preserving Wild Genes. There is a central government sector initiative for the development of medicinal and aromatic plants currently in operation (1992-1997). It is being implemented through 16 state agricultural universities, state horticulture and agriculture departments, regional research laboratories, and one international agricultural research center. The scheme is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture and involves establishment of herbal gardens, nursery centers, and demonstration seed production centers. Over the years under the auspices of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research many research and teaching projects have been funded and carried out by Central Agricultural Institutes, State Agricultural Universities, and the National Research Centre.

The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources initiated an All India Coordinated Research Project on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in 1972. The project carries out integrated multidisciplinary research studies on 12 mandatory crops (senna, periwinkle, licorice, asgandh, jasmine, opium poppy, palamarosa, lemongrass, vetiver, rose geranium, patchouli, and isabgol); 10 exotic crops including henbane, chamomile, melissa and anise; and 11 native species for domestication (swertia, safedmusli, aloe, babchi, mucuna, pipalanool, satavari, valerian, guggal, galangol and ciloe). Of the thirty four plants being researched only 4 are considered of importance by industry. There is obviously a need for greater collaboration if the needs of both and the nation are to be better served in the future.

An important source of information for creating a list of threatened medicinal plants is the Red Data Book of Indian Plants. It lists more than 600 plant species, which have been categorized as extinct, endangered, rare, or vulnerable. Gupta and Chadha (1995) list 35 important endangered species amongst the medicinal and aromatic plants of India. They suggest the species need detailed studies on their population structure, breeding behavior and habitat protection. Building on this base FRLHT is establishing a chain of medicinalplant conservation wilderness reserve areas in the western and eastern Ghats. This nongovernmental initiative is seen as the first measure of its kind aimed at conserving medicinal-plant genetic resources in India.

The Indian Medicinal Plants Distribution Databases Network, brings together the collective data of nine nodal agencies which collect, preserve, propagate, and use more than 8000 medicinal-plant species, in a chain of 48 in-situ and ex-situ conservation areas. The agencies include: the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow for pharmacology; CIMAP, Lucknow for agro-technology; Regional Research Laboratory, Jammu for phytochemistry; Publication and Information Directorate, New Delhi for bibliography; Botanical Survey of India, Dehra Dun for taxonomy; Lok Swasthaya Parampara Samvardhan Samiti, Coirnbatore for traditional medicine; National Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, Trivandrum for traditional medicine; and Ayurvedic Research Institute, Trivandrum for pharmacognosy. The Indian Medicinal Plants Distribution Databases Network newsletter disseminates information on the data each agency possesses as well as other information on medicinal-plant databases in India and abroad.

The Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Center was established by the WWF India in 1994 with the full support of the national government. The Centre will provide information support to government and non-government programs for environmental conservation in the country. The Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Center will also provide information to assist in the implementation of the Biodiversity Convention. In 1995, WCMC had documentation on 137 Indian medicinal-plant species in 63 Families with 165 references.

In-Situ Conservation. There are no separate policies or regulations for conserving medicinal plants in India. Their conservation is generally covered under existing laws, such as the Forest Act and Wild Life Protection Act (1972), which are enforced by the State Forest Departments and the Indian government's Directorate of Wildlife Preservation. Furthermore, there is no designated national agency or department with a clear mandate for the conservation of medicinal plants. Consequently, there has been no conscious or systematic effort to date at the government level, to conserve medicinal plants in-situ. However, the Ministry of Health, has recently started to promote the establishment of small herbal gardens in educational institutions as a means of furthering traditional medicine. The Indian Medicinal Plants Genetic Resources Network is expected to expand in later years to include conservation areas all over India.

An important recent decision by the Government of India gives an indigenous Indian tribe the intellectual property rights to the active ingredient of a plant long known and used by the tribe to combat stress (see Box 6).

Box 6: ‘Indian Ginseng' Brings Royalties for Tribe

New Delhi. An indigenous Indian tribe has been awarded the intellectual property rights to the active ingredient of a plant long known to it as helping to combat stress, in a move that the government hopes will help end the 'piracy' of tribal knowledge by both Indian and foreign drug companies.

The drug jeevani, which is based on this ingredient and is said also to provide an instant source of energy, has been developed from the plant Trichopus zeylanicus by the government-owned Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) in Trivandrum, Kerala. Researchers noticed that the tribe members habitually ate its raw seeds before undertaking strenuous work.

Arya Vaidhya Pharmacy (AVP), a large manufacturer of Ayurvedic drugs paid $50,000 for manufacturing rights plans to market jeevani internationally as a rival to ginseng. The Kani tribe of the Agasthiyar hills in Kerala will receive half of the know-how fee, and will also receive a share of a two percent royalty on any future drug sales. This money will go towards 2,500 families of the Kani tribe who will cultivate and supply the plants to AVP at a price agreed with the TBGRI.

Source: K.S. Jayarama, Nature. Vol. 381: 16 May 1996.

To strengthen the in-situ conservation of the medicinal-plant resource base in South India, FRLHT is coordinating a major medicinal-plant conservation initiative. The core activities are to establish a network of 30 in-situ centers in the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala during 19931997. FRLHT's conservation research strategy departs from the conventional approach. Their goals include:

· inventory medicinal plants used both in tribal medicine and the codified traditional systems of medicine (earlier efforts looked at only the economically important medicinal plants);

· document natural distribution of medicinal plants and identify sites for in-situ and ex-situ conservation;

· document and contribute to the revitalization of local health traditions associated with the biodiversity of medicinal plants; and

· design in-situ and ex-situ conservation programs that are people oriented and not merely industry-oriented. FRLHT is a pioneer in in-situ conservation and has expanded the scope of ex-situ conservation and cultivation.

Ex-Situ Conservation and Cultivation. In earlier times, medicinal-plant cultivation was confined to private gardens while plants for general use were collected from forest and village lands. Systematic cultivation was introduced by the East India Company in 1787. In 1930, the government established a program for the development of medicinal and aromatic plants on a proper scientific basis. Among species cultivated in Kashmir under the Medicinal and Food Poisons Enquiry Committee of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research were:

· pyrethrum. (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium), insecticide

· foxglove (Digitalis lanata), leaf used as cardiac stimulant

· henbane (Hyoscyamus sp.), leaf and stem used as sedative (narcotic) belladonna (Atropa belladonna), root and leaf used as diuretic (increases urine), sedative (lessens excitement, nervousness, tension), and anodyne (pain killer).

After independence in 1948, the Indian government set up various organizations for utilizing and cultivating the vast unexplored resources of medicinal and aromatic plants. Presently this work is being handled by the Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Regional Research Laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, various agricultural universities, and state horticultural and agricultural departments.

Research over the last four decades has focused on approximately 60 selected commercial species for industrial use, of which 40 are medicinal plants. Raychaudhuri and Ahmad (1992) have identified 144 species of medicinal plant that they believe are suitable for cultivation, 63 of which can be successfully grown in north India. Considering that 7000 species are reportedly in medical use by Indian Medical System and folk practitioners, current research efforts can only be considered minimal. However, medicinal-plant research does not want to go the way of agricultural crops. For instance, it has been estimated that 50 years ago, Indian farmers were growing some 30,000 varieties of rice; however, Maheshwari (1987) predicts that the number of varieties grown will have been reduced to no more than 50 by the year 2000 as a result of agricultural modernization.

Renewed interest in the medicinal properties and potential low cost of cultivation of sarpagandha, has given added impetus to conserving the remaining wild variant populations in the forests of the Himalayan foothills and coastal peninsula. Two distinct subspecies, that grow in different environments have been recognized in sarpagandha. Various stocks from Dehra Dun (Himalayas) and Kerala, Karnataka and Goa (western Ghats) are being cultivated for reserpine and related alkaloids at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi. The plant is usually propagated from seeds, although stem and root cuttings can also be used. Seeds are grown in nursery beds and transplanted during the rainy season. Irrigation is usually required during the year. The roots are harvested during winter. Cultivars; may be harvested at 18 months and may be intercropped with onion and garlic in the first year profitably. Its demand for fertilizer and irrigation is low, and it grows well on marginal soils.

FRLHF is promoting ex-situ conservation of medicinal plants to conserve rare, endangered and vulnerable species which are threatened in their natural habitats. They have established 15 ex-situ centers in the States of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. This work is being supervised by environmental and health NGOs in the region. Each center has a nursery for propagation, a herbal garden, and a gene bank. In addition, each center is responsible for creating awareness and encouraging the use of locally available medicinal-plant products in primary healthcare and encouraging farmers to grow such species of medicinal plant for which there is an industry demand.

In 1991 the Tropical Forest Research Institute at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh established a medicinalplant germplasm collection with 550 species of medicinal plants found in the dry deciduous forests of Satpura, Maikal, Vindhya, and the eastern Ghat Mountain ranges. These regions contain the largest number of medicinal plants used in the Ayurveda. Surveys classify plants as common, threatened, endangered, and rare. Collections of seeds, rhizomes, roots, and cuttings are taken for cultivation in the Institute's experimental nursery as part of a non-wood forest produce program. The intent is to return plants back to their original habitat for in-situ conservation in collaboration with State Forestry Departments, as well as provide local farmers and pharmaceutical industries with high quality breeding stock.

The Arya Vaidya Sala at Kottakal, Kerala combines the multiple facets of the traditional medicine sector-a family based, hereditary knowledge tradition, hospital and teaching facilities, manufacturing and research and development work. Based on its own usage statistics and experiences with declining availability of plant materials, the Arya Vaidya Sala has identified 10 priority species in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. They are engaged in a comprehensive program of mapping the ten natural stocks, developing ex-situ and farmer-based cultivation strategies and investigating the therapeutic action of these species (see Table 11).

In addition, IDRC initiated in 1994 a Medicinal Plant Research Network operating out of its New Delhi office. The network has adopted a proactive, user-based biodiversity conservation strategy and efforts are targeted at undertaking research partnerships with existing users of the resource baselocal communities and indigenous industry. Focal areas of research include folk traditions and knowledge, in-situ conservation, developing appropriate harvesting and cultivation techniques, improving quality control, storage and processing techniques.

Table 11: Species in Ayurvedic Medicines and Quantities Used


No. Ayurvedic Medicines

Kg. Used

Baliospermum montanum (root)



Celastrus paniculatus (root, leaf)



Coscinium fenestratrum (bark, root)



Cratavea nurvala (root, stem bark)



Embelia ribes (fruit)



Hemidesmus indicus (root, leaf, stem bark)



Holostemma ada-kodien (root)



Rubia cordifolia (root leaf, stem)



Saraca asoca (bark, flower, seed)



Trichosanthes lobata (root, flower, leaf, seed)



Source: Bajal and Williams. 1995.

A number of other Indian government institutions and private agencies are actively engaged in medicinal-plant cultivation and conservation programs. They include: Indian

Institute of Horticultural Research, National Research Centre, Central Council of Research in Indian Systems of Medicine, State Ministry's of Agriculture and Forest, State Agricultural Universities, and the Lalbagh, Calcutta, Ootacamund and Lucknow Botanic Gardens.

It is recognized that with an expanding medicinal-plant cultivation program high density plantings, especially if monocropped, are likely to require pesticides to control insect pests, pathogens and weeds. Furthermore, it is well-established that a number of agrochernicals have created health hazards in their application to crops and toxic effects of cultivated foods. When and where such products might be used on medicinal plants in the future, Parikh (1993) recommends readily biodegradable plant-based agroproducts be used to control insect pests. India has a very effective biocide in the common neem tree mentioned above. Active compounds act mainly as hormone blockers that send insect lifecycles down dead-end trails so the populations crash. They can be easily prepared by users and applied at minimal cost.