In one month, Mohammad Adil, a research scholar studying the reproductive biology of medicinal plants, made two journeys to Afarwat, a mountain in the north of Jammu and Kashmir. He intended to collect samples of Arnebia benthamii, commonly known as Kahzaban.

Both times he returned empty-handed.

The flowers of Kahzaban have been found to help people with heart problems. The plant also contains high levels of antioxidants.

“Eight years ago Kahzaban was abundant, but it is rarely found now,” said Adil.

Eventually, in August this year, he collected his sample in the upper reaches of Sonamarg, a remote hill station.

The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir is famous for its rich variety of plants with medicinal qualities, which are used in medical treatments, aromatherapy and cosmetics. But demand for these plants from Europe, China, Japan and other countries has made the region a fertile ground for smugglers.

See: Timber smugglers loot Kashmir’s forests during pandemic lockdown

See: Poaching spikes amid lockdown in South Asia

Researchers have documented 1,123 medicinal plants growing in Jammu and Kashmir. Irshad Ahmad Nawchoo, head of the school of biological sciences at the University of Kashmir and a member of the J&K Medicinal Plants Board, told The Third Pole that the majority are threatened.

Road construction without any understanding of the ecosystems has led to immense loss of medicinal plants in Kashmir [image by: Mudassir Kuloo]

Road construction without any understanding of the ecosystems has led to immense loss of medicinal plants in Kashmir [image by: Mudassir Kuloo]

“If there were 500 plants of any species at one place a decade ago, now their number has reached 50. This shows how much medicinal plants have been destroyed,” he said.

A study published in 2018 identified 50 native medicinal plant species in the region as in need of “immediate conservation action”, based on ecological and socioeconomic factors.

Plant power

The Himalayas are one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, and are rich in endemic plants (found nowhere else on Earth).

OP Sharma, former director of the State Forest Research Institute for Jammu and Kashmir, said some of region’s medicinal plants are rarely found anywhere else.

Their uses are extensive. Saussurea costus, a type of thistle known locally as kuth, is used to treat joint and back pain, ulcers, dysentery and fever. From Aconitum heterophyllum (paewakh), a lotion is made to treat headache and cough. A decoction made from the leaves of Dioscorea deltoidea (kraeth) is used as eyedrops to treat infections and sharpen eyesight. But their usefulness has led to exploitation; the plants described are all endangered.

Unrestrained illegal trade

A resident of Sonamarg told The Third Pole that in the first week of September he walked hours to the upper reaches.

There, he spotted a threatened Trillium govanianum plant, commonly known as Tripater, and uprooted it.

“We extract plants from the soil then sell to people. This is how we make our living. We get INR 2,500 (USD 34) for each kilogramme of Trillium,” he said.

Trillium govanianum is thought to cure many sexual disorders, especially infertility in men. It is also a cancer treatment, Akhtar H Malik, a botanist at the University of Kashmir, told The Third Pole.

A resident of the town of Tangmarg said locals are paid INR 2,500-3,000 (USD 34-41) per kg of Trillium govanianum. After that it is sent to Chandigarh in Punjab in trucks, then to European countries and China.

See: Illegally collected Himalayan plant seeds sold in UK

“It has a value of INR 70,000 [USD 950] per kg there,” he said.

The extraction of many medicinal plants is banned in Jammu and Kashmir. However, smugglers get around this by sending local men and women to the forests to pick the plants, as well as wood and dried leaves. This makes it difficult for forest guards to identify wrongdoing.

Mohit Gera, principal chief conservator of forests for Jammu and Kashmir, said many measures have been taken to preserve the forests and that “nobody can extract forest produce without permission”.

Nawchoo, disagreeing, said, “There are no exact figures on how much is being sold in Kashmir as the majority of medicinal plants are being smuggled and not recorded.” He added that forest dwellers are not aware that the plants are being overexploited.

Malik said some plants (Trillium govanianum, Fritillaria roylei, Saussurea costus, Arnebia benthamii) cost INR 50,000-100,000 (USD 680-1,360) per kg in the international market.

Multiple stressors

According to Sharma there are many reasons for the decline of medicinal plants. “Smuggling is a main factor. But construction of roads, pollution and stress on habitat also contribute,” he said.

A view of deforestation in middle Himalayas [image courtesy: Akhtar H Malik, Kashmir University]

He added that climate change is causing plants to grow at higher altitudes. “Some species can grow under a particular climate. When there is an increase in temperature these plants shift upwards and also disturb ecosystems there,” he told The Third Pole.

He said some medicinal plants no longer grow at lower altitudes.

See: Climate change threatens Tibet’s rare alpine plants

Deforestation is another problem. Forests cover over 20,230 square kilometres of Jammu and Kashmir – about 10% of its total area.

However, over 100,000 kanals (50 sq km) of forest has been encroached on over the past 30 years, according to the J&K Forest Department.

Nawchoo of the University of Kashmir said the development of tourist resorts has caused huge deforestation and destruction of habitats. “Hotels have been developed. Our researchers rarely found the majority of medicinal plants [in these areas],” he said.

Khilanmarg meadow at Gulmarg where tourists visit and medicinal plants have vanished [image by: Mudassir Kuloo]

Khilanmarg meadow at Gulmarg where tourists visit and medicinal plants have vanished [image by: Mudassir Kuloo]

“For the construction of one hotel at Gulmarg [a popular town for skiing holidays], suppose 50 trees were cut which can support billions of microbes and [on which] thousands of medical plants are dependent,” he explained.

He said the loss of plants could lead to habitat destruction and affect the entire ecosystem, as insects are affected.

Unchecked decline

“Government, NGOs and the general community are not keen to preserve forests. Some medicinal plants have value not only at a national level, but internationally,” said Nawchoo, calling for the government to stop the unchecked extraction.

Under India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, states set up biodiversity boards. However, for years Jammu and Kashmir did not have such a board; the Act was not applicable because of its special status under Article 370.On September 3, 2020, the board set up in 2015 was replaced by the Biodiversity Council.

Nurseries offer hope

Wahid Hassan is the former nodal officer at the Medicinal Plants Board – which means he coordinated between the board’s officials, members and other authorities. He said the lack of a formal market for the plants causes problems.

“The marketing part is missing. There is no mechanism for markets. Traders are exploiting farmers,” he said.

“We could generate huge employment. Initially it could be an INR 500 crore [USD 68 million] industry then can go to INR 2,000 crore [272 million] as it has tremendous potential.”

Gera, the principal chief conservator of forests, said that the Biodiversity Council wants people to cultivate medicinal plants, creating employment opportunities. This scheme, which is at an initial stage, has been implemented in some locations at a small scale.

A nursery has been established in Srinagar by the Medicinal Plants Board in collaboration with Department of Floriculture Kashmir, where 10 high-value medicinal plants are being propagated for distribution to farmers and government organisations.

There is also a proposal for six farmers to take on the mass cultivation of medicinal plants, set up three more nurseries and two marketing divisions. Workers will be trained to take cuttings from wild plants for the nurseries, rather than uprooting them.

Malik stressed the importance of involving local people and said part of the government’s scheme is to raise awareness among forest dwellers.

Nawchoo called for the government to provide financial support to growers and act as a purchaser.

Without urgent action, he said, within 10 years the majority of the region’s medicinal plants will vanish.

Mudassir Kuloo is a freelance journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir. He tweets @MudasirKuloo

3 comments

  1. Dr. Aashiq Hussain Kuchy |

    Ver informative and well articulated writeup. I personally believe that the tribal people are one of the biggest reasons if declining medicinal plants in this state. I being a forest officer witness how the virgin forest are overexploited and an upward trend is ongoing to encroach forest land.

  2. After going through the detailed contents, one will always feel that major part of this concept is theoretical. However, as majority might have seen I have been one of the consulted individuals at personal one to one level. The tragedy of Kashmir is that it gradually getting converted into a barren desert due to rapid deforestation, urbanization and gross mismanagement of the resources, especially the wealth of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP’s). When I compare my early surveys, collection and documentation of MAP density and diversity and compare it with what I see now, it disturbs me wherein I feel I am visiting barren deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat (even though some areas in these two states that I have visited reveal dense greenery. Gross destruction of Habitats due to construction activities, establishment of parks within the premises of dense forests, smuggling of MAP’s and debarking of conifers for chopping these for timber purposes, construction of private huts within green belts, commercial hotels, restaurants and add to that the routine activities of Gujar Bakerwal community i.e deforestation and shifting cultivation practice as a routine day to day work.
    When I visit any University or Institution outside Kashmir for participation in conferences, seminars, workshops or attending meetings or conducting Viva Voce, the hosts or organizers take me to green wild habitats. These visits have always been an inspiration for me, because wherever I have entered a forest or a wild habit I have always been checked both on arrival and departure to see what I am carrying. Whenever, I asked them why or what is the reason, the reply always was same “Protection is better than Cure” meaning thereby that I should neither remove anything from that belt (plants, animals etc.) nor leave anything behind (wastage etc.). This, at majority of the places was also followed by the practice, wherein at entry point each member of the visiting team was provided 3-5 seedlings in small carry bags with the request “we have already kept small pits ready please drop these plants into those pits”. All the members of the visiting team would always try to plant these seedlings problems with the hope that they will visit again and see what their contribution has been worth. This remind me of another important message for forest visit i.e
    “Take nothing away but memories – Leave nothing behind but your foot marks”
    In Kashmir Himalayan belt nobody bothers about this type of theme wherein majority are concerned about personal issues and not about issues of home land- Janat E Benazir. Another memory that reminds me what developmental attitudes vary between different communities is my survey and documentation of Ladakh belt for my Ph.D work on Ladakhi System of Medicine. Whenver, I visited Ladakh in late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Ladakh was an arid Desert with only one forest seen in the Vicinity of Hemis Gumpha (Budhist Shrine) comprising of @210 Populus trees. Visit now, i.e 2020, wherever you visit Ladakh and see a stream flowing you will always observe dense manually created green belts/forest of Populus and Salix spp. Add to that another popular practice in Ladakh, wherever you visit i.e be it a wild habitat or a domestic area, if you carrying any polythene bag with you, anybody and everybody can snatch that and take away along with what it contains and will fine you upto Rs.500/- which you have to pay on spot. Further, if you are seen smoking in public, the cigarette will be snatched and Rs.100/- will be charged as a fine, again you will have to pay on spot.
    Compare this with Janat E Benazir, polythene wastage seen everywhere including forests, public parks, tourist resorts, housing colonies, and smoking everywhere including public and private transport, parks, marketing complexes, sometimes Educational Institutions (Even though it has been controlled upto 90%).
    I would like to share some wonderful quotes

    “Let them know we will not allow the felling of a single tree. When their men raise their axes, we will embrace the trees to protect them.”
    – Chandi Prasad Bhatt

    when company men marched to cut the trees.
    Gaura Devi stood on way and declared:
    “The forest nurtures us like a mother; you will only be able to use your axes on it but you have to use them first on us.”
    Gaura Devi (an elderly woman)

    Sunder Lal Bahuguna (Environmentalist)
    Enlightened the country and out world about the movement, its success and environmental impact.
    Padmabhushan winner for his contribution in the movement of protection of natural biological wealth

    Sheikh Noor-Ud-Din (RA) — a famous Kashmiri saint who belonged to the rishi order. He was born in 1377, corresponding to 779 Hijri and he passed away at the age of 63 years in the year of 1440 or 842 Hijri.
    He is also known as Nunda Rishi, Alamdar-e-Kashmir and Sheikh-ul-Alam and is the patron saint of Kashmiris, highly revered by both Muslims and Hindus.
    He was a man of innate foresight and intuitive knowledge. One of his most famous and often quoted couplets is Kashmiri :”Ann poshi teli yeli wann poshi”meaning ‘Food will last as long as forests last’

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