Man through his keen observation and experimentation in the past identified plants having healing properties and thus developed traditional knowledge base contributing to our rich heritage. Despite the rapid developments in the modern system of medicine, the traditional medicinal systems like The Unani, The Siddha, Tibetan; Ayurveda etc. still remain the backbone of medicine in developing countries. According to a WHO estimate, the primary health care needs of almost 80% of the developing world’s population are met by these traditional systems of medicine. In India itself 8,000 species of the plants are used by some 4,635 odd number of ethnic communities for medicinal use, as researched by an NGO “Foundation for the Revitalisation of local Health traditions”.
The medicinal plants and crude drugs form an important industry and contribute to exports as well. India is a major exporter of raw medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPS) and processed plant based drugs. 75- 78% of the total exports are sent to six countries i.e. France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the UK and the US (Lambert, 1997).
Around 70% of India’s medicinal plants are found in tropical areas mostly in the various forest types spread across the Western and Eastern ghats, the Vindhyas, Chotta Nagpur plateau, Aravalis & Himalayas. Less than 30% of the medicinal plants are found in the temperate and alpine areas and higher altitudes, however they include species of high medicinal value. Analysis of habits of medicinal plants indicates that they are distributed across various habitats. One third of these are trees with an equal portion being shrubs and the remaining one-third herbs, grasses and climbers. A very small proportion of the medicinal plants are lower plants like lichens, ferns algae, etc. Majority of the medicinal plant are higher flowering plants (Tiwari Report, 2000)
Despite being a major exporter of raw and processed MAPS, there is no organized cultivation of the medicinal plants in India and this holds true for most of the exporters of raw and processed MAPS (like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Spain). Instead these leading exporters depend on the wild stands of MAPS for collection. Of late there is an increasing trend towards the use of the natural and herbal medicines and other health products. Considering today’s consumerism and increasing demand of medicinal plants, this natural resource is heading for a steady decline. As the collection of most of the medicinal plants is from the wild, in 70% of the cases the collection or harvesting is destructive in nature as either the whole plant (Swertia chirayita) or parts such as root (eg. Safed musli), bark (Taxus baccata) yields the active principle, which amounts to killing of the plant. Further the demand of the medicinal plants is so high that despite the regular collection the demand and supply are not balanced, which amounts to a pressure from the market and consequently ruthless collection from the wild. This exercise as a result leads to dwindling population of the species in the wild. Of the 161 medicinal plants species identified as economically important in peninsular India, 134 have been identified as threatened. Half of these threatened species are endemic and hence their extermination would lead to global extermination <http://www.frlhtindia.org/html/ciipr.htm>.
Similarly perennial Himalayan herbs Nardostachys grandiflora (jatamansi) and Picrorhiza kurrooa (kutki) are declining in their populations in the wild due to over-harvesting. These are valued for their aromatic and medicinal properties.
Further it is seen that there is lack of research vis a vis medicinal plants, their cultivation practices, the methods of their propagation, methods for their sustainable harvesting etc. Though trade in medicinal and aromatic plants amounts to a reasonable figure, funding and resources for research studies for medicinal plants and related fields is very less.
There is a need to create awareness regarding the importance of medicinal plants as an important resource, which contributes both to our primary health care needs and to our exports as well. The legacy of a rich traditional knowledge base and equally rich biodiversity of medicinal plants is depleting due to our ignorance. The need of the hour is to come up with a policy framework that ensures in-situ and ex-situ conservation of medicinal plants, development of agro-techniques, and most of all sustainable use and harvesting of medicinal plants. This requires involvement of stakeholders, policy makers, tribals, scholars, and farmers, leading to a holistic approach towards growing and harvesting of medicinal plants.
The problem of the medicinal plant as a depleting resource can be a blessing in disguise as the danger of their extinction may provide an impetus to their formal harvesting and this could, in turn, lead to enhance rural well being and local economy. Encouragement to cultivation of the medicinal plants would enhance productivity and conservation simultaneously. A substantial percentage of rural population is directly or indirectly associated with the medicinal plant based industry. The rural people have a strong knowledge base pertaining to medicinal plants, which is not documented and is passed down to their generations by rote. However this practice is also slowly diminishing due to the changing life styles and urbanisation. The knowledge base needs to be protected by documentation and encouraging the tribals and locals to practice their traditions.
In nutshell, the medicinal plants are an important natural resource. They contribute to our socio-economic, our culture and heritage. However this important resource is depleting due to lack of cultivation, limitless collection from the wild, overspreading urbanisation leading to endangered habitat of the medicinal and aromatic plants. Further the traditional knowledge base is facing similar fate due to urbanisation, changing life styles, lack of awareness of the importance of medicinal plants, and also lack of policies ensuring documentation etc. This subject can be treated as a multifaceted one, requiring contribution form different strata of society including the local population, tribal people, framers as well as the academicians, researchers and of course the policy makers.