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Uwe Schippmann

Federal Agency for Nature Conservation

Bonn, Germany

[email protected]

A. B. Cunningham

WWF/UNESCO/Kew People and Plants Initiative

Fremantle, Australia

[email protected]

Danna J. Leaman

IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group Ottawa, Canada

[email protected]


Forest Products Division

Wood and Non-Wood Products Utilization Branch

Sven Walter


Since time immemorial, people have gathered plant and animal resources for their needs. Examples include edible nuts, mushrooms, fruits, herbs, spices, gums, game, fodder, fibres used for construction of shelter and housing, clothing or utensils, and plant or animal products for medicinal, cosmetic or cultural uses. Even today, hundreds of millions of people, mostly in developing countries, derive a significant part of their subsistence needs and income from gathered plant and animal products (FAO, 1993; Walter, 2001). Gathering of high value products such as mushrooms (morels, matsutake, truffles) and medicinal plants (ginseng, black cohosh, goldenseal) also continues in developed countries for cultural and economic reasons (Jones et al., 2002).

Among these uses, medicinal plants play a central role, not only as traditional medicines used in many cultures, but also as trade commodities which meet the demand of often distant markets. For the purpose of this paper the term "medicinal and aromatic plant" (MAP) is defined to cover the whole range of plants used not only medicinally sensu strictu but also in the neighbouring and often overlapping fields of condiments, food and cosmetics.

Demand for a wide variety of wild species is increasing with growth in human needs, numbers and commercial trade. With the increased realization that some wild species are being over-exploited, a number of agencies are recommending that wild species be brought into cultivation systems (BAH, 2002; Lambert et al., 1997; WHO, IUCN and WWF, 1993). Cultivation can also have conservation impacts, however, and these need to be better understood. Medicinal plant production through cultivation, for example, can reduce the extent to which wild populations are harvested, but may also lead to environmental degradation and loss of genetic diversity as well as loss of incentives to conserve wild populations (Anon., 2002b).

The relationship between in situ and ex situ conservation of species is an interesting topic with implications for local communities, public and private land owners and managers, entire industries and, of course, wild species. Identifying the conservation benefits and costs of the different production systems for MAP should help guide policies as to whether species’ conservation should take place in nature or the nursery, or both (Bodeker et al., 1997).

In this paper, we review global trends in the close relationship between cultivation and wild harvest of MAP species, then make recommendations on steps that should be taken to achieve a balance between consumption, conservation and cultivation.

CBD and the ecosystem approach

Since its adoption in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has strived to implement its three major goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. Although MAP have not been explicitly on the agenda of the various CBD meetings, all three goals of the Convention are fully applicable to MAP resources.

In decision V/6, the Conference of the Parties of the CBD adopted the ecosystem approach as the primary framework for action under the Convention. It is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. The ecosystem approach is based on the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organization which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment. In April 2002, the CBD adopted the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation which provides a policy environment that is particularly well suited to addressing the conservation challenges for MAP in a coherent way (see Appendix 3).

Concept of sustainability

As a baseline element of the ecosystem approach it has to be recognized that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems. In conceptual terms, the essence of sustainable development is expressed by the relationship between people and the ecosystem around it. This implies that ultimately one is entirely dependent upon the other. Human and ecosystem well-being need to be assessed together. A society is thought to be sustainable when both the human condition and the condition of the ecosystem are satisfactory or improving. The system improves only when both the condition of the ecosystem and the human condition improve (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1996).


How many MAP are used world-wide?

The number of plant species which have at one time or another been used in some culture for medicinal purposes can only be estimated. An enumeration of the WHO from the late 1970s listed 21 000 medicinal species (Penso 1980). However, in China alone 4941 of 26092 native species are used as drugs in Chinese traditional medicine (Duke and Ayensu 1985), anastonishing 18.9 percent. If this proportion is calculated for other well-known medicinal floras and then applied to the global total of 422000 flowering plant species (Bramwell 2002; Govaert 2001), it can be estimated that the number of plant species used for medicinal purposes is more than 50000 (Table 1).

We recognize, however, that certain plant families have higher proportions of medicinal plants than others. Good examples are the Apocynaceae, Araliaceae, Apiaceae, Asclepiadaceae, Canellaceae, Guttiferae and Menispermaceae. In addition, these families are not distributed uniformly across the world. As a consequence, not only do some floras have higher proportions of medicinal plants than others, but also have certain plant families a higher proportion of threatened species than others (Table 9 in Appendix 1).


How many plants are used medicinally world-wide?






26 092

4 941



15 000

3 000



22 500

1 000



15 500

1 200



6 973




4 950




8 931



Sri Lanka

3 314




11 625

1 800



21 641

2 564


Viet Nam

10 500

1 800



13 366

1 700



422 000

52 885


Sources: Duke and Ayensu (1985); Govaerts (2001); Groombridge and Jenkins (1994, 2002); Jain and DeFillipps (1991); Moerman (1996); Padua et al. (1999)

How many MAP species are traded?

It is difficult to assess how many MAP are commercially traded, either on a national or even an international level. The bulk of the plant material is exported from developing countries while major markets are in the developed countries. An analysis of UNCTAD trade figures for 1981–1998 reflects this almost universal feature of MAP trade (Table 2). Adding the volumes for the five European countries in this list (94300 tonnes) marks the dominance of Europe as an import region. Germany ranks fourth and third as importer and exporter, expressing the country's major role as a turntable for raw medicinal plants.

Iqbal (1993) estimates that about "4000 to 6000 botanicals are of commercial importance", another source refers to 5000–6000 "botanicals entering the world market" (SCBD, 2001). A thorough investigation of the German medicinal plant trade identified a total of 1543 MAP being traded or offered on the German market (Lange and Schippmann, 1997). An extension of this survey to Europe as a whole arrived at 2000 species in trade for medicinal purposes (Lange, 1998). Recognizing the role of Europe as a sink for MAP traded from all regions of the world, it is a qualified guess that the total number of MAP in international trade is around 2500 species world-wide.


The 12 leading countries of import and export of medicinal and aromatic plant



VALUE [1 000 US$]



VALUE [1 000 US$]

Hong Kong

73 650

314 000


139 750

298 650


56 750

146 650


36 750

57 400


56 000

133 350


15 050

72 400


45 850

113 900


11 950

114 450

Rep. Korea

31 400

52 550


11 850

29 100


20 800

50 400


11 350

13 700


12 400

41 750


11 250

59 850


11 450

42 250


10 600

10 050


11 350

11 850


10 150

14 850


8 600

27 450


8 100

5 300


7 600

25 550


7 350

14 050


6 550

55 500


7 250

13 200


342 550

1 015 200


281 550

643 200

Figures based on commodity group pharmaceutical plants (SITC.3: 292.4 = HS 1211).
Source: UNCTAD COMTRADE database, United Nations Statistics Division, New York (Lange, 2002).

How many MAP are threatened world-wide?

To satisfy the regional and international markets, the plant sources for expanding local, regional and international markets are harvested in increasing volumes and largely from wild populations (Kuipers, 1997; Lange, 1998). Supplies of wild plants in general are increasingly limited by deforestation from logging and conversion to plantations, pasture and agriculture (Ahmad, 1998; Cunningham, 1993).

In many cases, the impact through direct off-take goes hand-in-hand with decline owing to changes in land use. Species favoured by extensive agricultural management like Arnica montana in central Europe go into decline with changes in farming practices towards higher nutrient input on the meadows. This requires habitat management as the key factor in managing species’s populations (Ellenberger, 1999).

One of the goals of the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group is to identify the species that have become threatened by non-sustainable harvest and other factors (see Appendix 4). The enormity of this task is illustrated by the following estimate: According to Walter and Gillett (1998), 34000 species or eight percent of the world's flora are threatened with extinction. If this is applied to our earlier estimate that 52000 plant species are used medicinally, it leads us to estimate that 4160 MAP species are threatened (Table 3).


How many medicinal plant species are threatened?

Number of flowering plant species world-wide (Govaert, 2001)


12.5% of them are used medicinally


8% are threatened (Walter and Gillett, 1998)


How many MAP are under cultivation?

Many medicinal plants, especially the aromatic herbs, are grown in home gardens, some are cultivated as field crops, either in sole cropping or in inter-cropping systems and rarely as plantation crops (Padua et al., 1999).

In a survey carried out for the Rainforest Alliance, companies involved in trade and production of herbal remedies and other botanical products were asked what percentage of their material is from cultivated sources and what percentage from the wild. On average, companies reported that 60–90 percent of material was cultivated, with the remainder harvested wild. However, when asked about species’ numbers rather than volume of material, the figures are generally inverted (Laird and Pierce, 2002). Lange and Schippmann (1997) state that of the 1543 species traded in Germany, only 50–100 species (3–6 percent) are exclusively sourced from cultivation.

Of more than 400 plant species used for production of medicine by the Indian herbal industry, less than 20 species are currently under cultivation in different parts of the country (Uniyal et al., 2000). In China, about 5000 medicinal plants have been identified and about 1000 are commonly used, but only 100–250 species are cultivated (Xiao Pei-Gen, 1991, He Shan-An and Ning Sheng, 1997). In Hungary, a country with a long tradition of MAP cultivation, only 40 species are cultivated for commercial production (Bernáth, 1999; Palevitch, 1991). In Europe as a whole, only 130–140 MAP species are cultivated (Pank, 1998; Verlet and Leclercq, 1999).

Based on these figures, we assume that the number of MAP species currently in formal cultivation for commercial production does not exceed a few hundred world-wide. A global survey on the extent of MAP cultivation in terms of species, volumes and values would be highly desirable. On the other hand, however, we recognize that many more MAP species are cultivated on a small-scale in home gardens, either as home remedies or by herbalists or that cultivation by local people can take place as enrichment planting.


Given the demand for a continuous and uniform supply of medicinal plants and the accelerating depletion of forest resources, increasing the number of medicinal plant species in cultivation would appear to be an important strategy for meeting a growing demand (Uniyal et al., 2000).

But why are so few species cultivated and why are some species cultivated and many others not?

One explanation may be found in the observation that cultivated plants are sometimes considered qualitatively inferior when compared with wild gathered specimens. For instance, wild ginseng roots are 5–10 times more valuable than roots produced by artificial propagation. The reason is primarily cultural, as the Chinese community, which is the largest consumer group of wild ginseng, believes that the similarity in appearance of gnarled wild roots to the human body symbolizes the vitality and potency of the root. Cultivated roots lack the characteristic shape of wild roots and are therefore not as highly coveted by consumers (Robbins, 1998). In Botswana, traditional medicinal practioners said that cultivated material was unacceptable, as cultivated plants did not have the power of the material collected from the wild (Cunningham, 1994).

Scientific studies partly support this. Medicinal properties in plants are mainly due to the presence of secondary metabolites which the plants need in their natural environments under particular conditions of stress and competition and which perhaps would not be expressed under monoculture conditions. Active ingredient levels can be much lower in fast growing cultivated stocks, whereas wild populations can be older due to slow growth rates and can have higher levels of active ingredients. While it can be presumed that cultivated plants are likely to be somewhat different in their properties from those gathered from their natural habitats, it is also clear that certain values in plants can be deliberately enhanced under controlled conditions of cultivation (Palevitch, 1991; Uniyal et al., 2000).

In general, in all countries, the trend is towards a greater proportion of cultivated material. The majority of companies, the mass-market,over-the-counter pharmaceutical companies, as well as the larger herb companies, prefer cultivated material, particularly since cultivated material can be certified as biodynamic or organic (Laird and Pierce, 2002).

From the perspective of the market, domestication and cultivation provide a number of advantages over wild harvest for production of plant-based medicines:

  1. While wild collection often offers material adulterated with other unwanted, sometimes harmful plant species, cultivation provides reliable botanical identification.
  2. Wild harvest volumes are dependent on many factors that cannot be controlled and the irregularity of supply is a common feature. Cultivation guarantees a steady source of raw material.
  3. Wholesalers and pharmaceutical companies can agree on volumes and prices over time with the grower.
  4. The selection and development of genotypes with commercially desirable traits from the wild or managed populations may offer opportunities for the economic development of the medicinal plant species as a crop.
  5. Cultivation allows controlled post-harvest handling and therefore
  6. Quality controls can be assured and
  7. Product standards can be adjusted to regulations and consumer preferences.
  8. Cultivated material can be easily certified as organic or biodynamic although certifiers are also presently developing wildcrafting standards (Leaman, 2002; Palevitch, 1991; Pierce, et al., 2002).

However, domestication of the resource through farming is not always technically possible. Many species are difficult to cultivate because of certain biological features or ecological requirements (slow growth rate, special soil requirements, low germination rates, susceptibility to pests, etc.).

Economical feasibility is the main rationale for a decision to bring a species in cultivation but is also a substantial limitation as long as sufficient volumes of material can still be obtained at a lower price from wild harvest. Cultivated material will be competing with material harvested from the wild that is supplied the market by commercial gatherers who have incurred no input costs for cultivation. Low prices, whether for local use or the international pharmaceutical trade, ensure that few species can be marketed at a high enough price to make cultivation profitable (Cunningham, 1994). Domestication of a previously wild collected species does not only require substantial investment of capital (up to US$ 200000; Plescher in litt.) but also requires several years of investigations (e.g. 12 years for Alchemilla alpina; Schneider et al., 1999).

On a time scale of sometimes many decades, the transition from wild harvesting to possible cultivation goes through various phases (Figure 1):

  1. Discovery Phase: At this point the demand can be met by wild harvest. Extractivism is done for local use or for barter with others.
  2. Expansion Phase: It is clear that the product is potentially useful and that demand is likely to increase. Harvest is done for local or regional sale and eventually for international markets. In general, species with naturally low densities are unlikely to become important sources of commercially large quantities.
  3. Stabilization Phase: The species is unlikely to be attractive to growers unless prices are high enough and wild-harvested resources are scarce enough. However, desirable species may be grown on farm land and planted around settlements.
  4. Decline Phase: Prices increase with scarcity due to transport costs, search time and long-distance trade. Wild populations will have to decline further before cultivation is a viable option. The trade is characterized by fluctuations in supplies, often to the extent of disrupting the trade balance. For slow growing species, if controls on collection are not strictly enforced, wild populations will be more seriously eroded before cultivated material is available (Cunningham, 1994; FAO, 1993).
  5. Cultivation Phase: Now, formal cultivation systems are developed and instituted. The plants are domesticated and incorporated in agroforestry systems sometimes for the benefit of small-scale farmers. If international market opportunities exist, commercial plantations are created with substantial investment and genetic selection, cloning, breeding and biotechnology may be applied. More resilient species may recover in their wild populations (Figure 1).


Transition phases from wild harvesting to cultivation: after wild resources decline with over-harvesting, raw material prices increase and cultivation becomes economically feasible; more resilient species can recover (after Homma, 1992 and Cunningham, 2001).


Health care needs

There is a world-wide trend of increasing demand for many popular, effective species in Europe, North America and Asia, growing between 8–15 percent per year (Grünwald and Büttel, 1996). Rapid urbanization and the importance of herbal medicines in African health care systems stimulated a growing national and regional trade in Africa (Cunningham, 1993). Demand for medicinal plants also reflects distinct cultural preferences. In the USA, for example, only three percent of people surveyed had used herbal medicine in the past year (Eisenberg et al., 1993), whereas in Germany, with a strong tradition of medicinal plant use, 31 percent of the over-the-counter products in pharmacies in 2001 were phyto-pharmaceutical preparations (BAH, 2002).

The level of herbal medicine use in most developing countries is much higher than this. While most traditional medicinal plants are gathered from the wild, they are not static health care systems, and introduced species are commonly adopted into the repertoire of plants used by African or South American herbalists. In many cases, herbal medicines can also be cheaper than western medicines, particularly where access to traditional healers is easier. Demand for traditional medicine continues in the urban environment even if western biomedicine is available (Anon, 2002b; Mander et al., 1997).

Income generation

Wild harvesting of medicinal plants is a chance for the poorest to make at least some cash income. Especially those people who do not have access to farmland at all depend on gathering MAP to earn at least some money. However, local people generally get a low price for unprocessed plant material. Although income from Prunus africana bark sales is an important source of revenue to villagers in Madagascar, in some cases generating >30 percent of village revenue, the price paid to collectors is negligible compared to Madagascan middlemen (Walter and Rakotonirina, 1995). In Mexico, Hersch-Martinez (1995) found that medicinal plant collectors only received an average 6.17 percent of the medicinal plant’s consumer price.

Whether fruits, roots, bark or whole plants are involved, the potential yield from wild stocks of many species is frequently over-estimated, particularly if the effects of stochastic events is taken into account. As a result, commercial harvesting ventures based on wild populations can be characterized by a "boom and bust" situation where initial harvests are followed by declining resource availability.

Small-scale cultivation and home gardens

Small-scale cultivation, which requires low economic inputs, can be a response to declining local stocks, generating income and supplying regional markets. This can be a more secure income than from wild harvest which is notoriously inconsistent. For farmers who integrate MAP into agro-forestry or small-scale farming systems, these species can provide a diversified and additional source of income to the family. Home gardens are increasingly a focus of medicinal plant propagation and introduction programmes intended to encourage the use of traditional remedies for common ailments by making the plant sources more accessible (Agelet et al., 2000).

Large-scale cultivation

As outlined by Leakey and Izac (1997), large-scale cultivation has a number of socio-economic impacts on rural people: "Commercialization is both necessary and potentially harmful to farmers. It is necessary in that without it the market for products is small and the opportunity does not exist for rural people to generate income. A degree of product domestication is therefore desirable. On the other hand, commercialization is potentially harmful to rural people if it expands to the point that outsiders with capital to invest come in and develop large-scale monocultural plantations for export markets. Rural people may benefit from plantations as a result of available employment and hence off-farm income […]. However, plantations may also distort market forces to their advantage, for example, by imposing low wages which will restrict the social and economic development of local people. The major beneficiaries of large-scale exports will probably be the country's elite and, perhaps, the national economy".

Also, those socially disadvantaged groups who actually depend on gathering MAP for their survival and cash income, may not have access to farmland at all and are therefore not able to compete with large-scale production of MAP by well-established farmers (Vantomme in Anon., 2002a). Other limitations to the domestication approach include boom-bust and fickle markets that let farmers down when consumers turn their attention elsewhere (Laird and Pierce, 2002).


Cultivation of medicinal plants is widely viewed not only as a means for meeting current and future demands for large-volume production of plant-based drugs and herbal remedies, but also as a means for relieving harvest pressure on wild populations (FAO, 1995; Lambert et al., 1997; Palevitch, 1991; de Silva, 1997; WHO, IUCN and WWF, 1993). In this chapter we want to assess the benefits and risks associated with such recommendations.

Booming markets with rapidly rising demands often have devastating effects on wild collected species. A closer look reveals that not all species are affected in the same way by harvesting pressures. The seven forms of rarity described by Rabinovitz (1981) make clear that a species which (i) has a narrow geographic distribution, (ii) is habitat-specific, and (iii) has small population sizes everywhere, is more easily over-harvested than species of any other pattern (Table 4).


Seven forms of rarity (after Rabinowitz, 1981)








somewhere large

least concern


everywhere small



somewhere large


everywhere small



somewhere large


everywhere small



somewhere large


everywhere small

highly susceptible

Secondly, the susceptibility or resilience to collection pressure varies among species owing to biological characters such as different growth rates (slow-growing vs. fast- growing), reproductive systems (vegetative or generative propagation; germination rates; dormance; apomixis) and life forms (annual, perennial, tree).

Species can be distinguished quite well for their susceptibility to over-collection if their life form and the plant parts collected are viewed together (Table 5). Harvesting fruits from a long-lived tree presents a far lower threat to the long-term survival of the species than does collecting seeds from an annual plant. In the latter case, if the seed is gone the plant is gone. In some cases the harvest impacts are more complex, e.g. with slow-growing trees which reproduce from seed but only produce few, large fruits (example: Araucaria araucana, monkey puzzle tree). This will increase their susceptibility to over-harvest from low to medium or even high. A thorough summary of predictors of resilience or vulnerability to harvesting wild populations is presented by Cunningham (2001).


Susceptibility of species to over-collection as a function of life form and plant parts used































medium ?

medium ?






medium ?

medium ?




In summary, we can state that species most susceptible to over-harvesting are habitat specific, slow-growing and destructively harvested for their bark, roots or the whole plant. These species suffer most from harvesting and many of them have been seriously depleted, for example Prunus africana in West Africa, Warburgia salutaris in southern Africa and Saussurea costus in the Himalayas.

For threatened medicinal plant species cultivation is a conservation option because the constant drain of material from their populations is much higher than the annual sustained yield. If the demand for these species can be met from cultivated sources the pressure on the wild populations will be relieved. In these cases, the need for strict conservation of remaining populations, improved security of germplasm ex situ and investment in selection and improvement programmes is extremely urgent as the example of Jaborandi (Pilocarpus jaborandi) in Brazil shows (Pinheiro, 1997).

However, among the species that can be marketed at a high enough price to make cultivation profitable, only a few are in the highest threat categories. Examples of threatened but cultivated species are Garcinia afzelii, Panax quinquefolius, Saussurea costus and Warburgia salutaris (Cunningham, 1994). With respect to economic viability many highly endangered MAP do not qualify for cultivation. This group of plants will enter cultivation only with the help of public domestication programmes.

For all other harvested MAP species the priority conservation option is sustainable harvest from wild populations, for a variety of reasons.

Let’s imagine that a valuable medicinal plant is exploited by local collectors. A pharmaceutical company has domesticated and begun to cultivate the plant on a commercial scale. When the company no longer needs the wild harvested material, local harvesters have to abandon the harvest and any incentive the local collectors might have had to protect the wild populations is gone. The domestication of MAP species has an environmental implication in the sense that it reduces the economic incentives for forest-dependent people to conserve the ecosystems in which the MAP species occur (Leaman et al., 1997; Vantomme in Anon., 2002a).

If collectors and collecting communities can be involved in the development of propagation and management methods, the likelihood of their having an interest in protecting the wild populations from over-exploitation, particularly if these are understood to be the genetic resource “bank” for the domestic enterprises, will be greater.

Another aspect to consider is the genetic diversity of the species which is in demand. Long before non-sustainable harvest practices lead to extermination of a whole species, selection of favoured growth forms and concentration on certain harvesting areas which may hold certain ecotypes will lead to a degradation of genetic the diversity of the wild populations. The same is true under domestication: Industrial requirements for standardization encourage a narrow genetic range of material in cultivation. Domestication will not achieve conservation of genetic diversity because a narrow group of high- yielding individuals will be selected for planting.

As a summary of Chapters 3–5, Table 7 in Appendix 1 indicates the advantages and disadvantages of the three aspects distinguished: "species/ecosytems", "market" and "people".


Sustainable harvesting is increasingly seen as the most important conservation strategy for most wild harvested species and their habitats, given their current and potential contributions to local economies and their greater value to harvesters over the long term. The basic idea is that non-destructive harvests and local benefits will maintain population, species and ecosystem diversity.

Besides poverty and the break-down of traditional controls, the major challenges for sustainable wild collection include: lack of knowledge about sustainable harvest rates and practices, undefined land use rights and lack of legislative and policy guidance.

Lack of information on the wild resource

“The most important ingredient required to achieve a truly sustainable form of resource use is information” (Peters, 1994). In reality, resource managers are always confronted with the lack of adequate information about the plants used, their distribution, the genetic diversity of wild populations and relatives and, above all, the annual sustained yield that can be harvested without damaging the populations (Iqbal, 1993). Research on the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants and their habitats has fallen far behind the demand for this globally important resource. Each species has unique ecological, socio-economic, health and cultural associations that must be understood. Model research approaches are feasible, model solutions are not.

Problems of open access

In many cases, access to the resource is open to everybody, rather than limited or privately owned. To make a living, commercial medicinal plant gatherers therefore “mine” rather than manage these resources (Cunningham, 1994). Open access schemes to harvestable plant population prevent rational and cautious use and make it difficult to adhere to quotas and closed seasons.

Lack of legislative and policy support for wild harvesting schemes

Information on trade in MAP is scarce and data are rarely collected or published at a national level. Much production and consumption are at subsistence level and as a consequence the economic importance of these activities is largely under-estimated in government decision making regarding rural development, natural resource management planning and in government budget allocations (Vantomme in Anon., 2002a). Therefore, national legislation and policies mostly fail to provide frameworks for a rational and sustainable use of a wild resource.

Opportunities for governments to develop legislation to control and monitor harvest and trade of medicinal plant species and to consider conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants as a priority in establishing protected areas have been greatly enhanced by two recent developments in international legislation: the addition of medicinal plant species to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and the entry into force of the CBD (see Appendix 2).


How will the market demand develop in the future? People in developing countries are already dependent and will increasingly depend on medicinal plants as sources for their primary health care. An estimate by the World Health Organization (Bannerman, 1982) that more than 80 percent of the world’s population relies solely or largely on traditional remedies for health care, is frequently cited.

Also in the northern countries, use of medicinal plants is expected to rise globally, both in allopathic and herbal medicine (WHO, 2002). This upward trend is predicted not only because of population explosion, but also due to the increasing popularity of natural-based, environmentally friendly products.

In general, the demand for medicinal plants and herbal remedies and especially its renaissance in the developed countries is driven by the following factors (Iqbal, 1993; Leaman, 2002):

Most MAP species will continue to be harvested wild

The limitations of cultivation as an alternative to wild harvest have been examined by Sheldon et al. (1997) in several case studies. We share their conclusion that, notwithstanding the level of interest in cultivation as a means for enhanced production and in a few cases as an effort to contribute to conservation of the resource, most medicinal and aromatic plant species will continue to be harvested wild to some extent. There is therefore a need to recognize and strengthen the role of local people in forest inventory, monitoring and impact assessment processes and to integrate non-timber product uses into forest management.

Need for implementation of management plans

Limiting the harvest to a sustainable level requires an effective management system and sound scientific information (Table 6). The management system must include annual harvest quotas, consider seasonal or geographical restrictions and restriction of harvest to particular plant parts or size classes. In addition, clarification of the access and user rights to the resources providing MAP is part of the essential baseline information. Continuous monitoring and evaluation of success is necessary to adapt the management strategy (FAO, 1995; Leaman et al., 1997; Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1996; Schippmann, 1997; WHO, IUCN and WWF, 1993).

In many cases harvesting techniques need to be improved as the extraction of the roots or bark is often negatively affecting the recovery of the species or may even kill it. Collection methods are often crude and wasteful, resulting in loss of quality and reduction in price (Iqbal, 1993; Vantomme in Anon,. 2002a).

Field-based methods have already been developed for sustainable harvest assessment and monitoring of non-wood forest products, resulting in the publication of research guidelines and predictive models (Cunningham, 2001; FAO, 1995; Nantel et al., 1996; Peters, 1994).


Steps and standard elements of a management plan for MAP utilization (Schippmann 1997)

• resource inventory of population abundance and distribution

• assessment of regional and global threat based on all available knowledge and expertise

• biological studies (growth and regeneration rates, pollination system, seed dispersal, potential for confusion with similar species, etc.) and assessment of harvest impact on viability of individuals

• assessment of annual sustained yield

• review of local knowledge and harvest practices

• review of harvest and trade levels in the past and evaluation of market trends

• revision of national regulations for the utilization in source country

• assessment of tenure and access

• design and implementation of management scheme: annual harvesting quota, seasonal or regional restriction and on certain plant parts or size classes, domestication programme

• installation of continuing monitoring and re-evalutaion (adaptive management)

Eco-labelling and certification

Given that sustainable harvesting from the wild is difficult to achieve, certification standards can play a role to assure that a product meets certain standards of sustainability. Certification programmes related to natural resource use have mainly been developed for timber and agricultural products but they are presently being adapted for wild harvest of non-timber plants. Various schemes focus on different areas along the supply chain: production, processing, trade, manufacturing, marketing. Four categories of certification schemes have been identified to be of relevance for MAP products (Walter, 2002): (i) forest management certification (e.g. Forest Stewardship Council FSC), (ii) social certification (e.g. Fair Trade Federation FTF), (iii) organic certification (e.g. International Federation of Organic Agriculture IFOAM), and (iv) product quality certification.

The latter includes parameters such as product identity, purity, safety and efficacy. The Good Harvesting Practices (GHP) developed for medicinal plants cover to some degree ecological aspects (Harnischfeger, 2000) but need to be more clearly focused on this aspect before they can make a meaningful contribution to ensuring sustainability. Dürbeck (1999), Walter (2002) and most comprehensively Pierce et al. (2002) present overviews of certification programmes and their activities.


  1. To overcome significant knowledge deficits, a global MAP cultivation survey should be commissioned by an international organization. Aims are to identify species cultivated, in which countries they are grown, volumes produced and their market values. This survey should also assess public domestication programmes, as well as in situ and ex situ conservation efforts of wild populations of species in cultivation (e.g. in protected areas, in genebanks and botanic gardens).
  2. Wild harvesting of MAP will continue to prevail due to the economic reasons outlined above. Sustainable wild harvest management schemes need to be supported by governments and authorities. Management plans need to be established as a standard prerequisite for any such harvesting in the wild. There is a need to monitor and audit the harvesting process to determine whether it is sustainable.
  3. Primary producers need help to improve returns from sustainable harvesting of MAP. Community-based small-scale cultivation enterprises need to be strengthened to enable them to compete with large-scale high-tech cultivation.
  4. Secure ex situ field genebanks need to be developed, particularly for habitat-specific, slow-growing species with high susceptibility of being over-harvested.
  5. Medicinal plant domestication programmes need to be expanded, taking fuller advantage of the genetic and chemical diversity within species over wide geographical areas.
  6. Capacity to assess and monitor the conservation status of MAP and to manage harvesting within the limits of sustainability is extremely limited world-wide and needs to be developed through training courses and curriculum development in ethnobotany and applied ecology. Research to investigate the sustainability of production systems is lacking and needs to be stimulated for a better understanding of the biological dynamics of the resource in the wild and in domestication.
  7. Management planning has to take the diversity of tenure systems which apply to medicinal plants into account to a far greater degree. Clarification of user rights over the resource and access to it, particularly where it is considered common property, needs to be recognized as a crucial factor enabling or preventing a sustainable harvest from wild populations.
  8. Eco-labelling and other social and economic incentives to strengthen market credibility and competitiveness of biodiversity-friendly products need to be promoted. The efforts of certifiers to develop certification standards for wild harvested plant material need to be supported as well as the approaches of industry to set up self-binding product quality standards. The private sector should be encouraged to consider local livelihoods and biodiversity when setting up ethical and environmental standards.
  9. Conservation of medicinal plants currently lacks priority in policy and law. There are opportunities to change this with the implementation of legal instruments such as the CBD and CITES. Government policies and legislation need to be adapted and implemented to recognize the value of and need for sustainable wild harvesting management regimes, to implement national and/or regional permit systems and make medicinal plant conservation a priority for national health and economic policy.
  10. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) needs to consider medicinal plant conservation as a programme priority worthy of funding.
  11. Medicinal plants warrant priority in national efforts to implement the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation of the CBD.
  12. Local communities can take more responsibility for sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants only if they have the choices afforded by adequate income, control over the resource and the knowledge and skills required. On the issue of intellectual property rights it needs to be elaborated how the country, the local user or other entity can be adequately compensated for use of the resource by outsiders.


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Wild harvesting versus cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants: A summary of
s advantages
t disadvantages




 it puts wild plant populations in the continuing interest of local people

 it relieves harvesting pressure on very rare and slow-growing species which are most susceptible to threat

 it provides an incentive to protect and maintain wild populations and their habitats and the genetic diversity of MAP populations



 devaluates wild plant resources and their habitats economically and reduces incentive to conserve ecosystems

 uncontrolled harvesting may lead to the extinction of ecotypes and even species

 narrows genetic diversity of gene pool of the resource because wild relatives of cultivated species become neglected

 common access to the resource makes it difficult to adhere to quotas and the precautionary principle

 it may lead to conversion of habitat for cultivation

 in most cases knowledge about the biology of the resource is poor and the annual sustained yields are not known

 cultivated species may become invasive and have negative impacts on ecosystem

 in most cases resource inventories and accompanying management plans do not exist

 reintroducing plants can lead to genetic pollution of wild populations




 it is cheaper since it does not require infrastructure and investment

 it guarantees continuing supply of raw material

 many species are only required in small quantities that do not make cultivation economically viable

 it makes reliable botanical identification possible

 for some plant parts extra-large cultivation areas are required (e.g. Arnica production for flowers)

 genotypes can be standardized or improved

 successful cultivation techniques do not exist, e.g. for slow-growing, habitat-specific taxa

 quality standards are easy to maintain

 no pesticides are used

 controlled post-harvest handling is possible

 it is often believed that wild plants are more powerful

 production volume and price can be agreed for longer periods


 resource price is relatively stable over time

 there is a risk of adulterations

 certification as organic production is possible

 there is a risk of contaminations through non-hygienic harvest or post-harvest conditions



 it is more expensive than wild harvest


 it needs substantial investment before and during production




 it provides access to cash income without prior investment

 it secures steady supply of herbal medicines (home gardens)

 it provides herbal medicines for health care needs

 it provides in-country value-adding

 it maintains the resources for rural populations on a long-term basis (if done sustainably)

but ...

but ...

 capital investment for small farmers is high

 unclear land rights create ownership problems

 competition from large-scale production puts pressure on small farmers and on wild harvesters

 this income and health care resource is becoming scarce through over-harvesting

 benefits are made elsewhere and traditional resource users have no benefit return (IPR)


Selected plant families characterized by high numbers of species used for medicinal purposes showing the number and proportion of threatened species. Data on proportion of threatened species per family according to the IUCN criteria from Walter and Gillett (1998)











Traditional medicine, symbolic

Stangeria eriopus





Horticultural collection & traditional medicine

Encephalartos species (56 listed as threatened)





Traditional medicine, Molluscides

Warburgia elongata.W. salutaris



12 000 - 14 200


Multiple uses: timber,medicinal, forage & food

Dalbergia odorifera, D. tonkinensis; Afzelia species





Medicinal & carving medicinals

Panax species



3 000


Stone fruit crops & medicines

Prunus Africana



1 200


Dyes, medicines, fruits,chewing sticks

West African Garcinia species over-exploited for chewing sticks


35 - 50

2 000


Timber, medicines, cinnamon

Ocotea bullata





Medicines, dyes)

Stephania (several species in SE Asia


168 - 200

2 000



Holarrhena floribunda


How to implement sustainability: The role of CITES

The principal tool for monitoring or restricting trade in species threatened by over-exploitation is the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which entered into force in 1975. The 158 national governments that currently have signed CITES are obliged to monitor and control international trade in the plants and animals listed in its two main Appendices.

Appendix I prohibits trade in wild specimens, except for reasons such as scientific research. Appendix II requires parties to issue export permits that confirm non-detrimental harvest of listed species, and requires importing countries that are parties to CITES to check and monitor permits on incoming material. It is important to note that for Appendix II species it is solely the country of export that decides whether to issue a permit or not.

Having become parties to CITES, national governments are required to establish or designate scientific authorities to conduct non-detriment studies for listed species, and management authorities to issue permits and certificates.

Species can be added, removed, or shifted between Appendices through proposals passed at biennial meetings of the signatories, or Conferences of the Parties. Seventeen species have been added to CITES Appendices because of their exploitation as medicinal plants, the majority of them in the 1990s (Table 9).

For medicinal plant conservation, CITES accomplishes a number of tasks very well, including: (i) monitoring trade at the species level; (ii) focusing attention on high use, high priority species with global value; and (iii) calling international attention to threatened medicinal plant species.

As a conservation tool, CITES also has a number of limitations: (i) Many countries are reluctant to support inclusion of important commercial species in CITES, even when there is justification for restricting or monitoring trade, for fear of losing needed international exchange. (ii) Internal trade is not monitored. (iii) A substantial amount of international trade is not monitored because exported material, such as dried bark and extracts, can be difficult to tie to particular species. (iv) CITES focuses on species that are already threatened, rather than preventing the threat.


List of plant species which have been included in the CITES Appendices because of trade for medicinal purposes





Adonis vernalis




Aquilaria malaccensis




Cistanche deserticola




Dioscorea deltoidea




Guaiacum officinale




Guaiacum sanctum




Hydrastis canadensis




Nardostachys grandiflora




Panax ginseng only populations of the Russian Federation




Panax quinquefolius




Picrorhiza kurroo




Podophyllum hexandrum




Prunus africana




Pterocarpus santalinus




Rauvolfia serpentina




Saussurea costus

Asteraceae (Compositae)

01.07.1975 App. II 01.08.1985 App. I


Taxus wallichiana





Global Plant Conservation Strategy of the Convention on Biological Diversity

In April 2002, the CBD adopted the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, including 14 outcome-oriented global targets for 2010. The ultimate and long-term objective of the strategy is to halt the current and continuing loss of plant diversity.

Policies relevant to the conservation challenges that arise from the increasing global demand for wild harvesting and cultivation of medicinal plants have been scattered over many different areas: forestry, health, agriculture, indigenous knowledge, access and benefit-sharing, and sustainable livelihoods. The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation provides a policy environment that is particularly well suited to addressing these challenges in a coherent way for medicinal and aromatic plant species.

Targets for the year 2010

Understanding and Documenting Plant Diversity

  1. A widely accessible working list of known plant species, as a step towards a complete world flora;
  2. An assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species;
  3. An understanding of basic conservation needs for threatened plant species, with conservation protocols developed for 50 percent of such species;
  4. Conserving Plant Diversity

  5. 10 percent of each of the world’s ecological regions and 50 percent of the world’s threatened species effectively conserved in situ;
  6. 90 percent of threatened plant species in accessible ex situ collections, and 20 percent of them included in recovery programmes;
  7. 30 percent of production lands managed consistent with the conservation of plant diversity;
  8. 70 percent of the genetic diversity of crops and other major socio-economically valuable plant species conserved;
  9. Threats to plant diversity from invasive alien species tackled;
  10. Using Plant Diversity Sustainably

  11. No species of wild flora subject to unsustainable exploitation because of international trade;
  12. 30 percent of plant-based products derived from sources that are sustainably managed;
  13. The decline of plant resources that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care, reversed;
  14. Promoting Education and Awareness about Plant Diversity

  15. Every child aware of the importance of plant diversity and the need for its conservation;
  16. Building Capacity for the Conservation of Plant Diversity

  17. The number of trained people working with adequate facilities in plant conservation and related activities doubled;
  18. Networks for plant conservation activities established or strengthened at international, regional and national levels;


Role of the IUCN/SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group

The Medicinal Plant Specialist Group (MPSG) is a global voluntary network of experts contributing within their own institutions and in their own regions to the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants. The MPSG was founded in 1994, under the auspices of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN – the World Conservation Union-to increase global awareness of conservation threats to medicinal plants and to promote conservation action. Its membership is made up of scientists, field researchers, government officials and conservation leaders.

Goal and objectives

The overall aim is to support and promote efforts leading to medicinal plant conservation and rational, sustainable use. The approach is to provide information, tools and strategy coordination that builds on the efforts of local, national, regional, and global partners to conserve and use medicinal plants sustainably, focusing particularly on actions that reduce threats to endangered species and habitats.

The programme has, among others, the following objectives:

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