Smugglers make hay as exploitation of medicinal plants goes unchecked

Srinagar, Jan 14: Three hours into the arduous trek, Salim, 45-year-old forager hailing from indigenous Gujjar community of Sonamarg, lets out a shriek of joy, as he spots a cluster of medicinal plant species called Trillium Govainum, locally known as ‘Tripather’ on the grassy floor. He digs into the roots gently with a spade and carefully places the bulbs in a cloth bag slung on his shoulder.

“I am selling these plant bulbs to a smuggler in Srinagar for Rs 2000-3000 per kilogram. This is how I make my living,” he says.

Every year, in the month of April, Salim gears up for the trek and extracts around half gram of the plant bulbs daily. The mountain, he has chosen is at an altitude of 2,500 metres, as this is the ideal height, where the healing Himalayan green grows.

Similarly, Janna Begum, 40, starts her foraging journey annually in the month of June. Her sought after plant is Fritlaria Roylei, locally known as ‘Sheet Khaar’, which grows abundantly in Gurez Valley, Gulamarg, Lolab and Hirpora wildlife sanctuary. It is used to treat around 80 ailments.

“We don’t know if it is used for curing diseases. We are simply extracting it to make some money out of it. There are plenty of smugglers who are in need of it,” she says.

She, however, notes that they always fear getting caught by the forest guards. “We only sell when we are familiar with the smugglers otherwise there are chances we may be caught,” she says

Likewise, there are scores of local foragers from other areas of Jammu and Kashmir who go out in the quest of finding the rare plant species.

Smugglers send local men and women to the forest to get these plants as it becomes difficult for forest guards to identify these people because they go in forests to collect various things like forest wood and dried leaves. 

 Kashmir has a rich resource of medicinal plants, which are used in aromatherapy and cosmetics as well as medical treatments. Demand for these plants from Europe, China, Japan and other nations have made Kashmir a fertile ground for smugglers.

More than 80 percent population in developing countries is dependent upon traditional system of medicine.

According to the official data compiled Department of Bio diversity and Taxonomy, Kashmir University, there are 1000 different kinds of medicinal plants available in the J&K out of which 300 are endemic –they are found in particular geographical region.  Among them are some high end plants having high commercial value and are dwindling fast due to huge demand.

Sample this: Trillium, which was earlier a lesser known medicinal plan in trade, has gained popularity in commercial utilization these days. It is one of the most sought after medicinal species of the western Himalayan region. However due to high demand and no significant regeneration, it is declining by the day, as per the official data. 

“The underground part of the plant, i.e. rhizome is key material of trade containing Trillarin which on hydrolysis yield diosgenin and used in preparation of steroidal and sex-hormones.  It is sold in lakhs internationally,” it says.

Similarly plant species like Podophylum Hexandum (local name: Vane Wangun), Sasurra Caustus (local name: Koth), Aconitum Heterophulym (local name: Phatrees), Sasurra Sicra (local name: Jueg Badshah) are on the verge of extinction, as per various studies.

Akhtar H Malik, a researcher at the Kashmir University, attributed “overexploitation, habitat destruction, unchecked deforestation and overgrazing as the primary reasons for the declining rate of medicinal plants”.

 “The locals get Rs 2500 to 3000 per kilogram of Trillium.  It sells at Rs 70,000 per kilogram. There are some foreigners who come as tourists but carry medicinal plants in their bags. These medicinal plants are being exported in trucks laden with fruits to Chandigarh from where it is being supplied to various parts,” he said.

Former Nodal officer, Medicinal Plant Board, Dr Wahid Hassan said forest department has already reserved 1785 hectares of land for the conservation of medicinal plants.

“This step was taken under a project sanctioned in 2010 and was competed in 2017. Around 4.34 crore rupees were given for the conservation of medicinal plants. For rehabilitation, the department is already planning to collaborate with the forest dwellers. They will be given the mandate of extracting and selling the plants. This will eventually generate employment and help us in securing the plants for posterity,” he said.

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About the Author

When the world fails to make sense, Hirra Azmat seeks solace in words. Both worlds, literary and the physical lend color to her journalism.

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