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These coveted medicinal plants are vanishing. Here's why.

November 18, 2022
topics: Conservation
by: Sameer Mushtaq, Suhail Bhat
located in: India
tags: climate change, deforestation, health, Kashmir, medicinal plants

Efforts are underway to prevent a complete wipeout of Kashmir's native medicinal plants, which are in high demand both locally and globally.

Mansoor Ahmad, a forest ranger in the Rafiabad range in northern Kashmir with a particular interest in medicinal plants, has noticed a sharp decline in the number of medicinal plants in the meadows he patrols over the past few years.

Ahmad claims that rare medicinal plants like arnebia benthamii and saussurea costus have disappeared from meadows like Gabwar in the Rafiabad Forest Range and Rajwar in the Handwara Region in northern Kashmir.

"Every time I visit these meadows, I observe their population decline," Ahmad told FairPlanet. "We need to act now before they entirely vanish from all of the meadows," he said, adding that "the situation is alarming." 

Ahmad asserts that arnebia benthamii, locally known as kahzaban - a plant used in Kashmir to treat a number of ailments including cardiac issues, was once easily accessible but is now exceedingly difficult to find. "The primary cause is overexploitation," he said, "as the herb is sought after for its medical properties."

The forests where Ahmad conducts his surveys are a part of the Himalayan region, which is one of the world's top 36 biodiversity hotspots.

Experts estimate that there are 1,123 medicinal plants in the Jammu and Kashmir Himalayas that have been used for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses, from heart to digestive problems. But these highly prized plants will eventually become extinct, according to researchers who have identified roughly 50 plants in Jammu and Kashmir as being "acutely at risk of decline" and are now calling for their protection.

Declining plant populations

Pollution, illegal trafficking, overexploitation and climate change, among other factors, have contributed to the decline of some of these plants, experts say. It is now difficult to find plants like arnebia benthamii, which grows in alpine ecosystems and is used to treat respiratory tract infections; trillium govanianum, commonly known as tripater, which effectively treats sexual disorders; and saussurea costus, locally known as kuth - a perennial, a highly-priced plant used to cure septicemia, ulcers and digestive disorders.

The majority of these plants used to grow in forests, but the amount of forest cover in Jammu and Kashmir has significantly decreased, which resulted in the loss of their habitat. According to 2021 study by Global Forest Watch, between 2002 and 2021, tree cover loss in Kashmir increased by 4.06 Ha or 100 percent.

According to Akhter H. Malik, a junior scientist in the Department of Botany at Kashmir University, over-exploitation, population exploitation, smuggling and changes in land use are some of the factors contributing to the decline of medicinal plants in the Himalayas of Kashmir.

"I have travelled around Jammu and Kashmir for the past 15 years, and I have noticed a great variation in the number of these plants," Malik told FairPlanet. "For instance, the popular tourist destination Gulmarg once had saussurea costus readily available, but these days it is rare to see these plants there."

He added that significant population growth in the forest catchment areas is taking a toll on the overall biodiversity of the forests. "For instance, the Ferozpur area, a forest catchment area in Tangmarg, North Kashmir, has seen a rise in population," he said. "The forest is under stress because people rely on it for cow grazing and firewood. Thirty years ago, there were 200 dwellings in the region, but there are now 700."

He added, "Furthermore, we are unable to construct structures with vertical shapes due to our position in a seismic zone. Agro-biodiversity and ultimately the total biodiversity are impacted by population growth."

The middle Himalayan Pir Panchal region, Malik continued, is losing its populations of medicinal plants, as are the Mahdev, Zabarwan and Harmukh ranges - smaller Himalayan offshoots that were historically rich sources of medicinal plants. 

From smuggling to the climate crisis

Experts further point out that smuggling, which has increased in Kashmir over the past few years, is another contributing factor to the depletion of medicinal plant populations.

Smugglers used to operate in other parts of the western Himalayas, but have subsequently migrated to Kashmir due in part to improvements in the local environment and the eradication of some of these plant species from these areas.

"I found some residents of the forest catchment areas who were involved in the smuggling of plants like Filarial Royale during my fieldwork," Ahmad said. "These individuals gather between 2 and 3 kg of the herbs, which they then sell for around Rs. 4000 [USD $49]," an amount he claims enables them to provide for their families. 

Similarly, trillium govanianum, a plant widely perceived to be a potent alternative to Viagra, is sold by the kilogramme either fresh or dry at Rs 3000 and Rs 7000, respectively. These plants are smuggled to certain parts of Europe, where people prefer herbal cures over synthetic medications.

Professor Mohammad Suleiman, a botany professor at the Government Degree College in Anantnag, South Kashmir, said that in addition to smuggling, other significant contributor to decline in plant populaitons include pollution, overexploitation, climate change and human involvement.

These plants, he said, have been adversely impacted by development, such as the construction of roads and tunnels, in these ecologically vulnerable sites.

"These plants have [also] been severely impacted by temperature variations and severe weather patterns because they are delicate and their life cycles are disrupted by even small changes in the habitat," he said.

Over the course of more than three years, Suleiman's floristic studies, which have yet to be published, have documented over 350 plant species, including medicinal plants, at one of the IUCN-recognised key biodiversity areas in the Heerpora region of southern Kashmir that face multiple threats.

"Many plants have migrated upward, according to my research," he said, "perhaps as a result of shifting climates."

Developing solutions

In an effort to preserve these plant species, the Kashmir Forest Department has begun to cultivate them in forest catchment regions that closely match their natural habitat.

There are hundreds of these plants in a facility called the Medicinal Plants Conservation Centre Rafiabad in northern Kashmir.

"The goal of the centre was to protect these therapeutic plant species," Ahmad said, adding they have developed similar eco-parks in other parts of the valley as well. 

He added that the department has established a community forest imitation initiative to give residents of forest catchment regions who were involved in the illegal trade of medicinal plants an alternative means of subsistence. As part of the initiative, workers the tools and knowledge they need to manage their fields, on which they grow various crops, including walnuts.

"More similar initiatives will be introduced to encourage people to support the preservation of these plants," Ahmad said.

Image by Sameer Mushtaq and Suhail Bhat.

Article written by:
Sameer Mushtaq
Sameer Mushtaq
Author
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Suhail Bhat Picture
Suhail Bhat
Author
India
The vulnerable torch lily (khiphofia ovaria), which grows on rocky surfaces, has been declining as a result of habitat loss.
The vulnerable torch lily (khiphofia ovaria), which grows on rocky surfaces, has been declining as a result of habitat loss.
© Suhail Bhat and Sameer Mushtag
Mansoor Ahmad poses for a photo at the Medicinal Plant Resource Center in Rafiabad, North Kashmir.
Mansoor Ahmad poses for a photo at the Medicinal Plant Resource Center in Rafiabad, North Kashmir.
© Suhail Bhat and Sameer Mushtag
Althaea rosea (Sazi Posh) is used to treat mumps and skin irritation in expectant mothers.
Althaea rosea (Sazi Posh) is used to treat mumps and skin irritation in expectant mothers.
© Suhail Bhat and Sameer Mushtag
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