India has total forest area of 6,97,898 sq. km. from which 80-85% of raw medicinal products are extracted from wild populations for the primary herbal health care systems in the country. The extracted products from the local populations are for self-use and for trade to fulfill the requirements of the herbal industry and other end users. Over-harvesting and inadequate management of this ‘minor forest produce’ has brought many of these species under serious threat of extinction. The most vulnerable of these ‘threatened’ species are trees with long life cycles and the slow growing, perennial Himalayan herbs. At the current level of understanding, the best viable method of their conservation and development is to conserve these species in their natural habitats.
It has been observed that the supplies of medicinal plants from wild habitats are declining. In fact, the availability of some herbal raw drugs has become so scarce that the traders and users rely upon the ‘equivalents’ and ‘substitutes’ of the original raw drugs. The situation calls for immediate management interventions to conserve and restore wild populations of priority species, i.e., the species in high demand and the species that have become ‘threatened’. Such management interventions would require data on the abundance and distribution of harvested species, and amounts harvested from the natural habitats as well as from outside these habitats. However, the practice of maintaining such records has been discontinued by many state forest departments after devolving control over minor forest produce, to local communities. The following policy level interventions will be needed to conserve medicinal plants of the country:
1• Develop a Conservation Strategy for Medicinal Plants-In situ and Ex Situ Conservation Centers:
It is a known fact that ex-situ cultivation can support conservation of species in the natural habitats. In fact in-situ conservation and ex-situ conservation supplement each other. Majority of the medicinal plant species are present in the forest ecosystem and hence conservation needs to be done in-situ.
For in-situ conservation it will be important to explore medicinal plant rich areas and declare them as Medicinal Plants Conservation Areas (MPCAs). At present there are 108 MPCAs that have been established and working efficiently. Outcome of these MPCAs have been found to be encouraging and there is need for their expansion of MPCAs. To sustain the MPCAs, it will be necessary to promote and conserve the adjacent areas also. In MPCAs, wild populations of selected species should be monitored, and threatened species should be restored. Furthermore, the protected areas should be free from invasive species. Finally legal backing for MPCAs will be needed if these were to serve as the main repositories of medicinal plants in the wild.
A GIS based database should be developed for the in situ conservation centers. Data outputs on abundance and distribution, monitoring and reintroductions should be spatially explicit. Such a data bases should be developed and maintained by a single agency with an explicit understanding that the data will be shared with others.
The ex-situ conservation of medicinal plants should supplement the in-situ conservation. There is a need to establish and maintain the ex-situ conservation and research facilities. Investment is such facilities should not be at the expense of in situ conservation programs that should remain the bulwark of medicinal plant conservation strategy. The ex-situ conservation should also help in the recovery and rehabilitation of threatened species and their reintroduction in natural habitat should be one of the objectives.
2: Establish Herbal Gardens, Seed Banks, Pollen Banks, DNA Banks, Nurseries and Multiplication Protocols:
These all are ex-situ conservation methods. Seed banks store seeds to preserve the genetic diversity. Seed banks are considered seed libraries and contain valuable information about evolved strategies to combat plant stress or to produce novel products. Many plants that were used centuries ago by humans are used less frequently now and seed banks offer a way to preserve that historical and cultural value. Pollen banks have a collection of different types of pollens (male genetic material) of flowering plants and also provide a pollen reference giving various details. DNA banking is the secure, long-term storage of an individual’s genetic material. These are highly sophisticated facilities. Nurseries and multiplication protocols contribute towards supply of standard multiplication material and their cultivation.
3. Modify Conservation Laws and Policies backed by clear and simple administrative procedures:
There are number of laws and policies that are governing the MPs. The species that are present in the forest ecosystem are governed by forest and wildlife related laws while those that are outside forest system or under cultivation, are governed by another set of laws. On top of it all sectors work in isolation without even knowing each others role. Therefore, there is a dire need of bringing all these sectors on the same page and create synergy in various policies and laws so as to benefit the sector. The procedures need to be made hassle free and easy to comply with i.e. Single Window Clearance (SWC).
4. Establish Community Owned micro-enterprises to Promote Sustainable Production of MPs:
Micro-financing and micro-enterprise development can be one of the most important interventions in the development of the MPs sector. Micro-financing plays a critical role in building local economy by facilitation access to local level financial services at an affordable rate of interest. Self Help Groups (SHG) could be both micro-enterprise well as micro-financing institution. Local cooperative banks should play an important role in the development of the micro-enterprise among individuals as well as group of people.
A. Sustainable wild harvest will help in ensuring livelihood to the local communities particularly women and uplift them economically.
B. Planning of conservation at micro level (wasteland, roadside & highways etc.) to be considered.
5. Register Collectors and Cultivators:
To help the bonafied local residents of the area, registration of collectors and cultivators should be a timely step. Registration of farmers can help the authorities to identify the resource, whether sourced from cultivation or from wild. As a policy registration of collectors and cultivators can be made compulsory.