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TRAFFIC International

Wild plants have been an important component of healthcare throughout human history. Medicinal plants continue to make important contributions to healthcare and livelihoods, and were recently identified by FAO as being among the most valuable non-wood forest products (FAO, 1999). Unfortunately, harvests to meet the demand for a growing number of medicinal species are in many cases exceeding sustainable levels. Wild medicinal plant populations and the benefits derived therefrom are coming under threat as a result. More effective co-operation among the variety of institutions concerned with the use and trade of medicinal plants, including those from the healthcare, conservation, development and commercial sectors, is required to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and continued availability of medicinal resources.

Medicinal Plants and Health

Medicinal plants underpin healthcare practices across the globe. Much of the world's population depends on traditional medicine to meet daily health requirements, especially within developing countries. Traditional medicine in turn relies heavily on medicinal plants. Reliance on natural medicinal resources can be attributed to cultural preferences as well as to the high cost and inaccessibility of western medicine. Use of plant-based remedies is also widespread in many industrialised countries. Herbal remedies are made directly from plant materials, and numerous pharmaceutical products are based on or derived from plant compounds. Similarly, cosmetics and other household products may contain plants of medicinal or therapeutic value. The use of medicinal plants for healthcare is believed to be increasing throughout much of the world, e.g. in Africa (Cunningham, 1993; Marshall, 1998), China (He and Sheng, 1997), Europe (Lange, 1998) and North America (Brevoort, 1998).

Commercial Trade in Medicinal Plants

The large and growing demand for plant-based medicines and changing population patterns have prompted a growing domestic and international trade in medicinal plants. The following information from Lange (1997, 1998) gives an indication of the scale of the trade.

According to Customs data, approximately 440 000 t of medicinal and aromatic plants were traded internationally in 1996, with a reported value of USD1.3 billion. Hong Kong, Japan and Germany were the largest importers during 1994 and 1995, the United States being the third largest importer overall during the period 1992 to 1996. Approximately 60% of imports into Germany in 1996 originated from non-European countries, with exports from Asia dominating the trade, followed by exports from Africa. China was also by far the largest exporter of medicinal and aromatic plants to world markets during the mid-1990s, with average exports topping 140 000 t from 1992 to 1996. The second largest exporter was India, with export volumes averaging approximately 36 000 t during this period.

A wide diversity of medicinal plant species are used and traded for medicinal purposes. A recent TRAFFIC 1 study of the European medicinal plant trade (Lange, 1998) estimates that over 2000 medicinal and aromatic plant species are used commercially in Europe, of which 1200 to 1300 are native. Approximately 90% of the European species are collected from the wild, with eastern Europe and the Mediterranean regions being the main suppliers (Lange, 1998). In India it has been estimated that approximately 7500 species are used for medicinal and veterinary purposes (Uniyal et al., 2000). Over 10,000 species are used medicinally in China (He and Cheng, 1991), with 1,000 species commonly used in medicinal preparations, of which 80% are wild-collected (He and Sheng, 1997).

Harvest of medicinal plants to supply domestic and foreign markets provides an important source of cash income in many countries. In Nepal, for example, Olsen (1998, cited in Olsen, 1999) has estimated that 470 000 households are engaged in commercial collection of medicinal plants. Several publications in the FAO Non-Wood Forest Product Series have drawn attention to the current and potential role of medicinal plants in economic development (e.g. see FAO, 1995; FAO, 1997).

Declines in medicinal plant populations

There is growing evidence that the populations of many medicinal plant species are declining in the wild. These declines are the result of several factors, key among them being habitat degradation and expanding harvests. TRAFFIC's study of the European medicinal plant trade identified approximately 150 European species reported to be threatened in at least one European country (Lange, 1998); a TRAFFIC study in East/Southern Africa identified approximately 100 species of conservation concern in one or more countries (Marshall, 1998). Reviews of the status of medicinal plant species according to the ‘Red List’ (threat) criteria of IUCN-The World Conservation Union in three regions of India identified approximately 70 species considered at risk (Anon., 1998). Fourteen species have been included in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) owing to concern that they might be threatened unless international trade is subject to specific controls.

Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants: A Multi-Sectoral Challenge and Opportunity

A variety of individuals and institutions have an interest in securing the future of medicinal plant species both because of the direct benefits they provide and in the wider context of biodiversity conservation. These range from local collectors, healers and communities to national governments, multi-national corporations, non-governmental organisations and international treaty bodies. Areas of concern include the role of medicinal plants in healthcare (both local and national) and development, biodiversity conservation, the use of traditional knowledge, intellectual property rights and benefit sharing, marketing and trade.

Individuals acting within different sectors are frequently unaware of the shared and/or conflicting interests and motivations of other sectors. In some cases, this can lead to different sectors unnecessarily working at cross-purposes. For example, government agencies charged with species conservation may be unaware of the importance accorded medicinal plants by health agencies. Similarly, health agencies may be unaware of the status of certain species in the wild. The former may seek to restrict use and trade of specific species, while the latter seeks to expand it.

In many cases, the long-term interests sought by different sectors might be better served through increased information sharing, dialogue and cooperation. For example, efforts to promote commercial trade of medicinal plants as a basis for economic development would benefit from greater knowledge of species biology and market dynamics. Efforts to ensure the conservation of medicinal plant species and their availability for healthcare would similarly benefit from such knowledge. Policies intended to support these and/or other objectives similarly seem more likely to succeed if the full range of stakeholder perspectives and interests are understood and taken into account.

The need for more effective cross-sector collaboration to address medicinal plant conservation issues was first brought to world attention by the International Consultation on the Conservation of Medicinal Plants, convened by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), IUCN and the World Health Organisation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1988. This message was reiterated a decade later during the international conference Medicinal Plants for Survival, hosted by the Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions in Bangalore, India in 1998. More recently, 20 participants at the symposium Medicinal Utilisation of Wild Species signed a ‘Joint Declaration for the Health of People and Nature’, which emphasises the need to address conservation concerns in a multi-disciplinary and collaborative manner. Signatories include representatives of the phytopharmaceutical industry, practitioners' associations and conservation organisations. The depository for the Joint Declaration is WWF Germany, who organised the symposium with TRAFFIC Europe - Germany, and, who, with TRAFFIC, is working to encourage and monitor the Declaration's transformation from words into actions.

These and other initiatives indicate the potential for more and more effective cooperation among individuals and institutions concerned with the use, trade and conservation of medicinal plants. Additional effort needs to be invested in putting these good intentions into practice in order to secure the future of medicinal plant populations and the benefits they provide.


Anon. (1998). Report of BCPP, Conservation Assessment and management Plant (CAMP) Workshop on selected medicinal plants of northern, northeastern and central India.

Brevoort, P. (1998). The booming U.S. botanical market: A new overview. HerbalGram 44: 33–45.

Cunningham, A.B. (1993). African Medicinal Plants: Setting Priorities at the Interface Between Conservation and Primary Healthcare. UNESCO, Paris, France.

Cunningham, A.B. (1993). African Medicinal Plants: Setting Priorities at the Interface Between Conservation and Primary Healthcare. UNESCO, Paris, France.

FAO. (1995). Non-wood Forest Products for Rural Income and Sustainable Forestry. FAO, Rome, Italy.

FAO. (1997). Medicinal Plants for Forest Conservation and Healthcare. FAO, Rome, Italy.

FAO. (1999). State of the World's Forests 1999. FAO, Rome, Italy.

He, S.A. and Sheng, N. (1997). Utilization and conservation of medicinal plants in China with special reference to Atractylodes lancea. In: FAO. (1997). Medicinal Plants for Forest Conservation and Healthcare. FAO, Rome, Italy.

He, S.A. and Cheng, Z.M. (1991). The role of Chinese botanical gardens in conservation of medicinal plants. In: Akerele, Ol, Heywood, V. and Synge, H. (eds.) (1991). The Conservation of Medicinal Plants. WHO, IUCN-The World Conservation Union and WWF, Geneva and Gland, Switzerland.

He, S.A. and Sheng, H. (1997). Utilization and conservation of medicinal plants in China with special reference to Atractylodes lancea. In: FAO. (1997). Medicinal Plants for Forest Conservation and Healthcare. FAO, Rome, Italy.

Lange, D., (1997). Trade in plant material for medicinal and other purposes: A German case study. TRAFFIC Bulletin 17(1): 20–32.

Lange, D. (1998). Europe's Medicinal and Aromatic Plants: Their Use, Trade and Conservation. TRAFFIC International, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Marshall, N.T. (1998). Searching for a Cure: Conservation of Medicinal Wildlife Resources in East and Southern Africa. TRAFFIC International, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Olsen, C.S. (1998). The trade in medicinal plants from Nepal. THeme paper presented at the International Conference on Medicinal Plants, Bangalore, India, 16–19 February 1998.

Olsen, C.S. (1999). CITES Appendix II re-visited: Is the listing of Nardostachys grandiflora and Picrorhiza kurrooa appropriate? Medicinal Plant Conservation 5: 8–10.

Uniyal, R.C., Uniyal, M.R. and Jain, P. (2000). Cultivation of Medicinal Plants in India: A Reference Book. TRAFFIC India, Delhi, India.

1 TRAFFIC is the joint wildlife trade monitoring programme of WWF - World Wide Fund for Nature and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. TRAFFIC has grown from a single office when it was first formed in 1976 to a worldwide network with staff based in 22 countries and a coordinating office in Cambridge, UK. TRAFFIC's aim is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. Additional information regarding TRAFFIC's work can be found on TRAFFIC's website ( or by sending a request to TRAFFIC (219c Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL, United Kingdom; email: [email protected]).

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