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Part two: Articles on Regional Aspects of Medicinal Plants Use

Biodiversity - People Interface in Nepal

Nirmal K. Bhattarai

Scientific Officer, National Herbarium
G.P.O. Box 938, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel. 977-1-413396 Fax: 977-1-225603


The flora of Nepal consist of some 7,000 species of vascular plants of which 252 are endemic. There are more than 75 vegetation types spread across an area of 147,181 square kilometres. About 14 per cent of the area of the country has been brought under protection. More than 700 species of medicinal plants grow wild in the country, majority of which are used in folk herbal remedies. Every year, over fifteen thousand tons of medicinal herbs representing some 100 species are harvested from the wild for commercial and industrial purposes.

Useful wild plants of the Nepal Himalaya are of critical importance to hundreds of thousands of rural people as sources of nutrition, health care, raw materials and cash income. The interaction between these people and the wild plant resources has emerged as the most important factor in sustaining the region. In Nepal, quantitative analyses of the effect of extraction on natural plant population are lacking. Indiscriminate collection, not in accordance with any regulatory procedure or recognised management practices, has threatened the survival of some species and reduced the quality of many wild species.

The threat to biodiversity originates from the activities of the rural communities suffering from ignorance, poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Therefore, a key aspect of any campaign for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources is enhancing community awareness and participation. Sustainable development and biodiversity conservation must be firmly linked if Nepal is to assure the conservation of its natural resources and meet the needs and improve the quality of life of its present population and future generations.


Nepal, with a population of about 21 million, extends over a distance of some 800 km along the great Himalayan range in the south-easterly direction from 81° 15' to 88° 10' E. The total area is 147,181 square kilometres and the altitude ranges from 60 to 8,848 m above mean sea level. With the widest altitudinal variation in the world within the narrow width of about 150-200 km, Nepal is endowed with at least 75 vegetation types and a rich flora, estimated at about 7,000 species of higher plants.

As Nepal occupies the central part of the great Himalayan range, its flora lie in a transition zone between the flora of west Himalaya containing many west Himalayan elements, and that of east Himalaya, with many Sino-Japanese elements. It also harbours plants representative of the Tibetan plateau in its many northern frontiers, especially in the trans-Himalayan regions. Numerous plants representative of the Indo-Gangetic plains are also found in its tropical regions. Plant diversity in Nepal can also be illustrated from the fact that over 1000 species of Himalayan plants have originally been discovered and described from the Nepalese flora. (Bajracharya et al., 1988). Nepal's floral diversity contains some 370 endemic plant species (Joshi and Joshi, 1991) of which 252 are higher plants (Bajracharya et al., 1988).

Nepal's commitments to biodiversity conservation for sustainable development

Nepal was an active participant at the UN Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. It is also involved with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) as an elected member of its Governing Council since 1984. Nepal, as one of the signatories of the Rio Declaration, is firmly committed to the protection of the environment by an effective national action plan with particular concern and interest on matters relating to the conservation of biological diversity and improvement of the living conditions of the poor. Besides, Nepal has entered into a number of obligations and co-operative agreements related to conservation. It is a signatory to the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) which it accepted on 20 June 1978. Two natural sites, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) and Royal Chitwan National Park, have since been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Fourteen protected areas including the national parks and other wildlife reserves have so far been established, covering about 14 per cent of land area of the country.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal-1991 formally recognises the need to preserve the environment and to use natural resources wisely. At present, six non-timber forest products (NTFPs) which are recognised as threatened with over-exploitation, are banned from export in unprocessed form: Jatamansi (Nardostachys grandiflora DC.), Sugandhawal (Valeriana jatamansi Jones), Sugandhakokila (Cinnamomum glaucescens (Nees) Drury), Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina Benth. ex Kurz), Jhyau (consisting of several species of Lichens: Parmelia, Ramalina, Usnea, etc.) and the mineral Silajit (a natural form of asphalt). Concerning two other species, viz. Panchaunle (Dactylorhiza hatagirea (D.Don) Soo) and Yarsagumba (the fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc.), even their collection is banned.

Sources of threat to biodiversity conservation

The following human activities can be enumerated as the principal threats to conservation of biodiversity in the country:


Tropical hardwood has dominated the trade based on natural resources in Nepal for more than a century. However, this trend has very recently declined because of the depletion of timber reserves from the natural forest through logging and conversion of forest land to other uses. Wood is the principal source of fuel in the country. Over 87 per cent of the nation's energy requirement is met by forest products and each person consumes one cubic meter of wood per year for this purpose (Upreti, 1985).

Population pressure and the so-called developmental activities are causing a rapid depletion of forests in every part of the country. As a result, countless plant species are facing considerable danger of extinction. A significant lowering of the upper timber line has resulted from human activities which include conversion of forest to arable land, commercial timber cutting, excessive gathering of timber for domestic use, construction of roads, dams, canals, high-tension electricity lines, etc. These developments occurred largely during the last fifty years and reached their peak very recently.

Forest fires

Occasionally, forests are intentionally set to fire to kill trees to obtain fuel wood and construction materials, and also to extend the area of the adjoining agricultural lands. Forest fires, especially those in the high-altitude pine (Pinus wallichiana A.B. Jacks.) forests are set to enhance the growth and yield of the high-priced morel mushrooms (Morchella conica L., M. esculenta L., etc.). The pastures are regularly subjected to fire to produce tender grasses. Consequently, many valuable herbs flourishing in those habitats are heavily affected. The fire also destroys the alpine butterfly belonging to the genus Leptropteris whose larvae are the host for the highly reputed and endangered medicinal fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc., ultimately threatening the existence of even the fungus. Mostly the fires are beyond control, and result in severe losses destroying the herbs, roots and rhizomes at ground level and even the clumps. Lower branches of tall trees are also seriously affected by the fire. Organic matter in the upper layer of the soil is usually destroyed resulting in the disappearance of many valuable biological species from the area.

Shifting cultivation

The shifting cultivation, called 'khorea phandne', is another form of destruction of habitat. A patch of the climax forest is cleared, burnt and used for farming for some years after which it is abandoned and the farmers shift to another forest area, clearing another patch of the climax vegetation. This practice results in the destruction of a large number of biological species and the abandoned land is mostly succeeded by a fewer number of sporadic species that are quite different from the original vegetal cover.


The shortage of fodder and other feeding materials has resulted in overgrazing in the pastures and overlopping of fodder trees in the forests. Fodder for the estimated 15 million cattle in the country, which includes important non-timber forest products used by the villagers, is estimated at 5.6 million tons of fodder per year (Upreti, 1985). About three-quarters of the fodder comes from the forest and grassland, thus posing pressing threat to the country's biodiversity (Sigdyal, 1984).


In Nepal, there are traditional extraction systems in which very little processing of the products occurs in the area in which they are found. The general pattern is to gather, dry, pack and transport out of the region of origin. A major proportion of the non-wood forest products, especially the medicinal and aromatic herbs collected from the wild, is meant for export. Hence, the quantities of different forest products collected are mostly determined by the demand from abroad. At the same time, the local collectors, mostly belonging to the poorer classes of the community, are being attracted by the market prices for some items that have gone through the roof. As a consequence, raw materials are overharvested by the removal, for example, of immature plants, roots, tubers and rhizomes, or by overpruning. As an outside interest dictates the price and quantity of raw materials extracted, a major part of local ecosystem has suffered irreversible harm.

Medicinal plants in trade and industry

The list of Nepalese medicinal plants contains well over 700 species comprising about 10% of the known vascular plant species of the country (Malla and Shakya, 1984). Every year, thousands of tons of medicinal herbs are collected from the forests and pastures, and traded to foreign countries. The trade in medicinal herbs is an important source of revenue for the government and a major source of income for the rural people. About 100 species of medicinal herbs are currently exploited for commercial and industrial purposes (Malla et al., 1995).

A study of the available records revealed that 3,448 tons of herbs were collected for commercial and industrial purposes during the fiscal year 1989/90, followed by 6,217 tons in 1990/91; 3,372 tons in 1991/92; 5,679 tons in 1992/93; and 11,694 tons in 1993/94. Over 90 per cent of the total export is to India with whom trade links have prevailed since times immemorial.

The uncontrolled commercial extraction has significantly eroded the country's medicinal plant resources, and particular species have gradually become more difficult to find in a given locality where they once flourished. Thus the availability of the high-altitude herbs supplying underground parts, e.g. Aconitum ferox Wall., A. heterophyllum Wall. ex Royle, A. spicatum Stapf., Dactylorhiza hatagirea (D.Don) Soo, Daiswa polyphylla (Sm.) Rafu. var. wallichii Hara, Fritillaria cirrhosa D.Don, Nardostachys grandiflora DC., Panax pseudoginseng Wall., Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora Pennell, Podophyllum hexandrum Royle, Rheum australe D.Don, which were once abundant, has declined drastically in recent years. The supplies of middle- and low-altitude herbs like Asparagus racemosus Willd., Dioscorea deltoidea Wall. ex Griseb., Rubia manjith Roxb. Valeriana jatamansi Jones, and many epiphytic orchids, notably Dendrobium densiflorum Lindl., D. longicornu Lindl., and D. macraei Lindl., have reduced considerably. Tropical and sub-tropical herbs like Alstonia scholaris (L.) R.Br. and Rauvolfia serpentina Benth. ex Kurz have already reached near extinction levels in most areas of the country.

In addition to direct export of herbs, many entrepreneurs are taking an interest in processing for industrial uses such as the production of essential oils and ayurvedic medicines involving thousands of tons of crude herbs collected locally. Collection and trade of medicinal herbs and other non-wood forest products provide up to 50 percent of a family's income in certain areas of the country.

Wild plant resources in the livelihood of the rural people

Apart from commercial and industrial uses, the majority of the lay population use wild plants in a variety of ways, the additional uses being for food, folk medicine, fodder, fuel, and a variety of domestic articles. They are also used as sources of dyes, tannins, fibres, gums and resins, for producing agricultural and hunting tools and weapons, and in witchcraft and magic. Some species are also used in worships and religious rituals.

Considering the specific case of health services, in Nepal, like in most other developing countries, due to the shortage of trained manpower and facilities, modern health services have not been provided to the greater part of the rural areas where the majority of the population lives. This sector of the population is therefore largely dependent on the indigenous medicines, especially the folk herbal medicines which have been used and appreciated since prehistoric times. About 85 percent of the rural Nepalese population are said to use these remedies (Dani, 1986). Wild medicinal plants, therefore, play an invaluable role in the health services available to the rural Nepalese population. The interaction between these people and the wild plant resources has, therefore, emerged as a critical factor in sustaining the region. As 14% of the land including most suitable habitats for different species of medicinal plants has been protected, the pressure on other forests and pastures have increased beyond the carrying capacities of the ecosystem in most parts of the country.

Reasons for the excessive extraction of wild plant resources

The improper and excessive exploitation of biological resources leading to habitat destruction and placing threat on biodiversity is largely due to illiteracy, poverty and the shortage of off-farm employment opportunities for the rural population.

Non-timber forest products, especially medicinal and aromatic plants, are regarded as a free commodity to be collected from nature. Consequently, the raw materials are mostly being overharvested. Illiteracy and poverty have forced the rural Nepalese people to continue activities which help them survive in the present but which will cause more severe problems in the future.


People living in rural areas constitute more than three quarters of our population of about 21 million, the majority of whom are dependent, partially or wholly, upon the natural plant resources for their livelihood. The wild plant wealth of the Nepal Himalaya has a rich resource base which potentially can contribute to biological, environmental and economic sustainability as well as to development, provided that recognised management practices and adequate regulatory procedures are brought into action.

As a result of population growth, habitat destruction and increasing commercial demand for raw materials, pressure upon the existing forest and pastures is ever increasing. Consequently, the quantity of wild medicinal plants extracted throughout the country is significant both in terms of volume and economic value. Hence, the great diversity of wild plant resources, which provides the raw materials for Nepal's major industries and serves as the source of livelihood to the rural people, is in deep trouble.

Many plant species which are among commodities traded internationally, have not even been the subject of proper scientific identification. Some prominent examples are 'Amphi', 'Bompo', 'Dhawa', 'Halik', 'Hiunkhamar', 'Kaldana', 'Kawala', 'Mujoseda', 'Rishimarka', 'Sankhadurlabha', 'Sugandhapatta', 'Tairi', and 'Tigedi'. Scientific identification of plants collected and traded is a prerequisite for evaluating their current and potential uses, for initiating conservation measures and for introducing development and management practices effectively.

More than 90 per cent of the non-wood forest products collected for commercial purposes finds its way to India. The species exported include some which are considered threatened or even endangered in India, notably Aconitum ferox Wall. ex Seringe, Allium stracheyi Baker, Begonia rubella Buch.-Ham. ex D. Don, Cypripedium cordigerum D. Don, Dioscorea deltoidea Wall. ex Griseb., Nardostachys grandiflora DC., Panax pseudo-ginseng Wall. and Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora Pennell among others. Further, most medicinal and aromatic herbs exported to India are re-exported to other countries either in the crude form or after primary processing, in addition to being used in the Indian pharmaceutical industries.

The existing record keeping system in many District Forest Offices and Customs offices is far from satisfactory. It is likely that the quantities of plant material actually collected and exported are significantly greater than the quantities recorded (Malla et al., 1993). Overharvesting is not restricted to products that are collected for commercial markets. Browder (1992) cites many examples from South America of NTFPs used primarily by local communities that are also being depleted by unsustainable extraction, and Nepal is no exception.

The collection of medicinal herbs and other non-timber forest products has generated considerable employment opportunities in remote areas where majority of the people are poor. The common property characteristic of medicinal herbs and other NTFPs also has relevance to the manner in which they are commercially exploited. The collectors most often come from the poorest classes who depend heavily on wild herbs for subsistence. Indiscriminate collection, not in accordance with any regulatory procedure or recognised management practice, has threatened the survival of some species and reduced the quality of many wild species.

Although the exploitation of some plant parts (e.g. fruits, seeds and latex) is less damaging than others (e.g. bark, stems or roots), almost any form of harvesting has an impact on the structure and function of plant populations. There are ways to exploit the non-timber resources produced by plant populations with the minimum of ecological damage. Doing so, however, requires management. Baseline data about the size-class structure and yield characteristics of the population must be collected, regeneration surveys must be conducted, harvest levels must be periodically adjusted, and, in some cases, remedial treatments such as enrichment planting or weeding must be initiated. In Nepal, although there is considerable evidence for overharvesting of medicinal plants, quantitative analyses of the effect of extraction on natural populations are lacking. Without such analyses, it is impossible to assess the effect of harvesting on depletion of resources in natural communities, nor is it possible to design appropriate conservation and management plans.

Recognising that a major proportion of Nepal's biodiversity exists outside of protected areas and that protected areas alone are inadequate to conserve the country's biodiversity, the conservation, development and sustainable use of biological resources outside the protected areas are highly desirable. Regarding protected areas, the objective of Agenda 21 of the Rio Convention (UNCED, 1992) , viz. "The first beneficiaries of the conservation and sustainable use of wild plant and animal species should be the rural communities and indigenous people whose traditional knowledge and respect for those resources has preserved them for centuries", is particularly relevant.

At the community level, local people are the true resource managers, with a vested interest in maintaining the natural resources on which they depend. The success of conservation and sustainable use of resources, therefore, largely depends upon the understanding of the people and their acceptance of the concept. As most rural people are ignorant of the needs for environmental conservation, conservation education should be introduced as part of the curriculum in schools and in adult literacy programs. Environmental education needs to focus on the poor and teach practical skills to make people more self-reliant and aware of how to use their local resources sustainably and more profitably.

In Nepal where the overwhelming concern of majority of the population is meeting their immediate needs, it is difficult to conserve and direct resources for the benefit of future generations. The excessive collection of wild plant resources by the rural Nepalese people is therefore not just a case of preference but a situation of having no other option (Bhattarai and Croucher, 1996). The improper and excessive exploitation of medicinal plant resources leading to habitat destruction and threat to biodiversity is, no doubt, the direct outcome of ignorance, poverty and shortage of off-farm employment opportunities. The resource-poor people generally take the view that "If I don't pick what I can today, someone else will get it tomorrow". As a result, even the protected areas like the national parks are facing the problem of indiscriminate collection of plant resources (Yonzon, 1993). These trends and attitudes have led to a cycle of impoverishment in which the local people increasingly loose control over the management of their resources.

Nepal is passing through its eighth five-year plan. The forestry sector has always received increased priority in every plan. In spite of this, the forestry sector has failed to make sufficient progress towards protecting the forests and implementing measures for their sustainable development and management. Even after the vast and uncontrolled deforestation, the mistake of regarding tree plantations as equivalent to natural forest vegetation is unfortunately being repeated. A forest is a community of living beings in which the tree is the most important member. There are trees of different species and of different ages. Bushes, grasses, herbs, insects, birds and wild animals live in this community. They support each other. Such a community cannot grow in monoculture plantations. So the urgent need of the hour is to protect the remaining forests.

The conclusion is a challenge. Our approach to conserve biodiversity for sustainable development should be targeted at different levels, from improving living standards to changing the attitude of the people. If the Himalayan medicinal plants are to continue to serve the needs of the people without being reduced to a dangerously unstable resource base, they have to be considered in the perspective of sound ecological management that also has economic benefits to the local people. Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation must be firmly linked if Nepal is to meet the needs and improve the quality of life of its present population and future generations.

Finally, it is worth citing here the opinion expressed by Marco Flores Rodas, the then Assistant Director General of FAO, in the Third World Conference on National Parks: "Until the rural people are ensured adequate food and shelter and a dignified standard of living, all efforts to establish and manage national parks and protected areas will be futile" (Uprety, 1985).


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