Department of Wildlife and Forest Biology
University of Agricultural Sciences, Forestry College
India has more than 3000 years of medicinal heritage based on medicinal plants. Medicinal plants are widely used by all sections of the population either directly as folk remedies or indirectly in the preparation of modern pharmaceuticals. Out of nearly 17,000 higher plants recorded in India, 7500 are reported to be in medicinal use by the rural and tribal communities. These include many rare endemics known only from the wild. The human population explosion coupled with the improved standard of living has led to unmanaged exploitation of these plants resulting in imminent danger of extinction for some of them. 256 medicinal plants in India have been listed in the Indian Red Data Book as endangered. Most of these wild medicinal plants are confined to certain habitats with a restricted geographic range. Their rarity coupled with large scale destructive collection from the wild has resulted in conservation efforts being initiated by governmental and non-governmental agencies (NGO's) focused on their conservation and sustainable use.
The government of India launched a programme in 1993 to strengthen the medicinal plant resource base in India in the context of primary health care. The co-ordination of this project was entrusted to an NGO called "Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions" (FRLHT), which is dedicated to the re-vitalisation of the Indian medicinal heritage.
As part of this project 30 in situ conservation areas called "Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas" (MPCA), 15 ex situ conservation areas called "Medicinal Plant Conservation Parks" (MPCP), and one "Model Production Unit" (MPU) to produce herbal medicines on a large scale from locally available plant products, have been established in the three South Indian States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The 30 MPCAS are located in different forest/vegetation types in order to conserve the maximum possible plant diversity. The location of these MPCAs is given in Figure 1.
Among the different MPCAS in the project area the Billigiri Rangan Hills Temple (B.R.T.) is an important and unique one. This is the only MPCA that is complemented by a MPCP, ex situ. It is the only Model Production Unit (MPU) under this centre, and serves as a Model Production Unit (MPU) for the entire project area. Hence it is the major centre of activity in this programme, in which in situ and ex situ conservation and sustainable utilisation complement each other to meet prevailing needs. Billigiri Rangan Hills (B.R. Hills), in the State of Karnataka, located between 11 59'N and 77 8'E, is a chain of hills which is the meeting point of Western and Eastern Ghats, two of the most floristically rich areas in India. The varying altitude (600 to 1800 m) results in distinct vegetation types. At higher altitudes and on sheltered slopes, patches of evergreen forests called "Shola" occur; mid-way down in wide valleys are the moist deciduous forests; and lower down are the dry deciduous and scrub forests. Floristic studies undertaken have recorded 825 species of plants belonging to 484 genera and 133 families (Kammathy et al. 1967). These forests also have a large number and a wide variety of animals and birds, and they have been declared a of Wildlife Sanctuary by the Government. In addition to this floral and faunal diversity, the 4000 local tribals called "soligas" add to its value: the soligas have been living in harmony with these forests for a very long time.
The MPCA programme, initiated in 1994-95, has the following objectives:
1. To conserve in situ the medicinal plant flora of Billigiri Rangan Hills on a long term basis;
2. To assess the adequacy of MPCA through detailed studies related to floral diversity, population status and specific ecological parameters;
3. To create greater awareness in local communities about richness of local health traditions and the need to revitalize them;
4. To arrange training courses for forest departmental staff to inform them on in situ conservation methodologies and the importance and role played by local communities in such conservation;
5. To arrange for supply of medicinal plants of local importance and in high demand for growing in home-gardens and on marginal lands.
The B.R.T MPCA is around 150 hectares and surrounded by a buffer area of some 8000 hectares. The dominant forest type is the southern dry mixed deciduous forests and in some patches it is semi-evergreen. The canopy trees are Anogeissus latifolia, Terminalia sp., Tectona grandis and Dalbergia sp. The middle storey has Bauhinia purpurea, Phyllanthus emblica, Butea monosperma and Bridelia retusa and the shrubs that form the understorey are Helictercs isora, Holarrhena antidysenterica ic weeds like Eupatorium and Lantana are also common. The density of the crown is around 60% and regeneration of native species is evident in the MPCA. The forests receive some 1420 mm rainfall between June and December and the average maximum temperature is around 28o C and minimum temperature is about 19o C. The soil is red loamy soil, blackish in colour due to decayed organic materials.
Intensive studies were undertaken and field data was collected with respect to diversity, presence of tribals, regeneration of the forest and biotic association. An inventory was carried out, and local names and traditional uses were recorded. Information on the soil and topographic factors of the habitat was also collected. To date 327 plant species have been collected; this constitutes 8.1% of the total recorded flora of Karnataka. 190 (or 58%) of the 327 species collected are of medicinal importance. 63 of these species are used by the local tribals for minor ailments. 57 species among the 190 medicinal plants are in the priority list prepared by FRLHT for conservation, and two species are considered threatened.
In addition to floristic studies, studies on diversity, tribal presence, regeneration of the forest, standing volume and environmental factors which might affect the above parameters are being studied in a systematic manner. 20 transects, each of 250 metres length and 4 metres width, have been laid out in different parts of the MPCA. The information collected will be analyzed and used in the development of the management plan of the MPCA. These transects have been permanently marked, and monitoring will be carried out every 5 years.
The results from the floristic and transect studies are also being used in formulation and implementation of other activities under the MPCA programme. These include protection and rehabilitation of the in situ area, nursery raising of medicinal plants, raising of community awareness and training of field staff.
The protection activity in the MPCA is mainly confined to fire protection since physical protection is taken care of by the staff of the wildlife sanctuary. Fire is a major threat and protection measures like fire breaks and deployment of staff to monitor and control fire, are being undertaken. Rehabilitation work is mainly in the form of soil and moisture conservation measures, removal of weeds (Lantana and Eupatorium) and rehabilitation of bare areas.
The MPCA nursery raises seedlings to be grown in fields and home-gardens. 17 medicinal plant species, suggested by FRLHT, and in use in primary health care, are being propagated on a large scale. This nursery also propagates rare, endangered and threatened species. Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), a local NGO, is involved to a larger extent in the ex situ conservation programme called "Medicinal Plant Conservation Park" (MPCP) programme. VGKK has a nursery with greenhouse to multiply medicinal plants and rare and threatened species; an ethno-medicinal forest area in which these species are collected and cultivated; a seed and drug museum; and a herbarium to educate and motivate people in conservation.
Regular training of field staff in different aspects of medicinal plant conservation, and involvement of the community in conservation, is being provided by FRLHT with inputs from scientists and specialists from universities, NGOs and government. Training courses and workshops are held for all the levels of field staff starting from forest guards and foresters, range forest officers, Assistant Conservators of Forests and Deputy Conservators of Forests. The course material provided and the feedback collected have helped to more effectively implement the conservation programme.
The community awareness and interaction programme is the most important element in the MPCA programme. Since local tribals, "soligas", live in the area, their involvement will be essential to ensure long-term sustainabilility of conservation efforts. This programme is being implemented with active participation of the VGKK. They have been working with the local tribals in the fields of health, education and community development for the last 20 years. The Forest Department conducts regular meetings involving the tribals at which action plans for conservation are formulated. Another important effort in involving the tribals in conservation has been the establishment of a model production unit (MPU) for producing herbal medicines in bulk from locally available medicinal plants. The tribals who are involved in collecting and marketing these products through co-operatives will be able to get better prices through value adding. This effort will also provide gainful employment and over the years will help in sustainable utilisation of medicinal plant resources. Since conservation is linked to utilisation and financial incentives through value adding and gainful employment, tribals have shown interest in this effort.
The medicinal plant conservation effort at B.R. Hills with an in situ, ex situ and community participation approach is a co-ordinated effort involving government, NGOs and local people. This pilot area provides an example of a very effective conservation effort which could be duplicated in other areas with similar conditions.
The author is grateful to FRLHT for providing financial support to undertake these studies, the Forest Department for providing logistic support and the University for permission to conduct these studies.
Farnsworth, N.R. and Soejarto, D.D. (1991). Global importance of medicinal plants. Pages 25-52. In Alayiwala Akerele, Vernon Heywood and Hugh Synge (Eds.) conservation of Medicinal plants. Cambridge University Press.
Kammathy, R.V., Rao, A.S. and Rao, R.S. (1967). A contribution towards a flora of Billigirirangan Hills, Mysore State. Bul. Bot. Surv. India 9 (1-4), pp. 206-234.