Review Article
Conservation Status of Medicinal Plants in Ladakh: Cold Arid Zone of Trans-Himalayas

G. Phani Kumar, Raj Kumar and O.P. Chaurasia

Research Journal of Medicinal Plants, 2011, 5(6), 685-694.

Abstract

The study reveals that Ladakh is rich in medicinal flora and endemic diversity. The traditional knowledge on native plant species is highlights Amchi system of medicine and their traditional health-care system. The excessive extraction of medicinal plant resources for use in the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in ruthless destruction of natural populations of medicinal plants. Present study attempts to assess the current status of knowledge of medicinal plant resources and conservation status in Ladakh. An approach for prioritizing strategies for action is proposed which is a three step process, viz., technology development, technology dissemination, technology assessment and refinement. It also focuses on approach for prioritizing strategies for action is proposed.

ASCI-ID: 82-153

Dhar et al., 1999). Consumption of herbal medicines is widespread and increasing in recent years and approximately 80% of the people in developing countries depend on traditional medicines for primary health care needs (Farnsworth et al., 1985). The global market for the medicinal plants and herbal medicine is estimated to be worth US$800 billion a year (Rajasekharan and Ganeshan, 2002). India is one of the leading countries in Asia in terms of the wealth of traditional knowledge systems related to herbal medicine and employs a large number of plant species includes Ayurveda (2000 species), Siddha (1121 species), Unani (751 species) and Tibetan (337 species).

The Himalayan region is a reservoir of a large number of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) and designated as one of the global biodiversity hotspots, where ecological, phyto-geographical and evolutionary factors favour high species diversity. The Indian trans-Himalayas span over 186,000 km2 above natural tree line zone and is known for its sparsely distributed vegetation and relatively low species diversity. This zone sustains more than 1000 plant species, 225 avian species and many rare and endangered mammalian fauna, including the snow leopard (Shiva, 1996). Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir contributes the highest geographical area in the trans-Himalayan region of India, followed by Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, northern part of Sikkin and Uttaranchal. High-altitude Himalayan zone is full of fragile habitats and decline in tree-species richness, however, rich in representative (native) and endemic biodiversity elements (Kala and Manjrekar, 1999).

Keeping the above facts in view, the present article attempts to (1) identify medicinal plant resource base of Ladakh, (2) highlight the potential and role of medicinal plants in the Tibetan system of medicine, (3) assess the present state of knowledge on threatened medicinal plants of Ladakh, (4) cultivation and conservation implications and (5) suggest a coordinated plan for strengthening the medicinal plants sector in Ladakh. The results of the investigation will help in developing a strategy for conservation and utilization of the medicinal plants by promoting strong linkages among different types of institutions.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Extensive field surveys (Jain, 1991) were undertaken since a decade to gather data on ethno-medico-botanical information on vegetation of Ladakh and the traditional uses of medicinal plant species across various localities in the Ladakh. Information was gathered using semi-structured questionnaires about the types of ailments treated by the traditional use of medicinal plants and the preparation of herbal medical formulations. The information related to traditional system of medicine given in the text was gathered from traditional healers living across the Ladakh (Changthang, Indus, Nubra, Suru and Zanskar valleys). Specimens of each species identified were maintained at DIHAR herbarium. Literature survey (Samant et al., 1998) was carried out for the compilation of various traditional practices, beliefs, raw materials used for curing different ailments, cultivation and conservation practices. Rarity of species is determined by field study, visual estimation, literature and herbaria. The criterion for categorization of threatened species is based on the IUCN (Nayar and Sastry, 1987; IUCN, 2001; Ved and Tandon, 1998).

Study area: Ladakh, ‘the land of high-rising passes’, is located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India (32°15'-36° N; 75°15'-80°15'E). It is bounded on the north and east by China and in the north-west by Gilgit and Skardu (Pakistan). Siachen is the largest glacier located in the extreme northwest of Ladakh. The barren mountain landscape of Ladakh is broken by a series of rivers, notably the Indus and tributaries including Zanskar, Markha, Shyok, Nubra and Suru. The high-altitude (8000 ft to 24000 ft), harsh natural environment of Ladakh is characterized by extreme temperature (-30°C to +30°C), high radiation, strong winds, low precipitation (<100 mm year-1), low humidity; and desert-like extensive barren landscape, rugged topography, steep and vertical glaciated slopes, minimal forest cover and few pasture lands at high elevations (Kumar et al., 2009a,b, 2010). The Tibetan science of healing, Sowa rigpa (gSo-ba Rig-pa), is an integrated system of health care contains elements of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. Since amchis are the practitioners of this system it is also known as Amchi medical system (Namgyal and Phuntsog, 1990) 60% of the public health of Ladakh is looked after by this system (Chaurasia and Singh, 1996; Kala, 2005). Some of the Tibetan medicines were made up of purely plant species and their parts. Gradually, Tibetan medicine has gained considerable momentum in Western countries due to the growing awareness about the side effects of allopathic medicines (Kala, 2002).

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Vegetation and medicinal flora of Ladakh: Flora and vegetation at the landscape level are an important component in the study of the diversity of life forms and ecological patterns in spatial variability (Farina, 1998). The flora of Ladakh comes under alpine and high alpine zones and differs significantly from the rest of the Himalayas due to prevailing unique climatic conditions and physiography. Tree line is more or less absent in this zone, however, annual and perennial herbs followed by stunted shrubs and bushes dominate the flora which counts more than 750 plant species (Chaurasia et al., 2007): 540 dicots, 65 monocots and two gymnosperms (Kachroo et al., 1977). The dominant families of the study area are Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Fabaceae, Graminae, Ranunculaceae, Lamiaceae etc. and followed more or less same sequence with North-west trans-Himalayan vegetation (Aswal and Mehrotra, 1994) (Fig. 1). The distribution vegetation is adhered to particular altitude range and sometimes to particular valleys. Maximum number of plant species (429) were identified in between 11000-12000 ft asl and then decreased number of species with increased altitude (Fig. 2). Many of the high altitudinal plants have shown potent medicinal values (Kumar et al., 2010, 2011).

Medicinal plants of Ladakh can open avenues of economic growth in the emerging world market. Further, it has been realized that medicinal plants of the trans-Himalayan region offer an advantage in having much greater possibilities of providing novel bio-molecules in view of the environmental stress (Mani, 1994). In the present study medicinal plants of Ladakh are being grown under three categories, alpine mesohytes, oasitic vegetation and desert vegetation. The parts of Suru valley is characterized by high humidity, more rainfall and shows the characteristic of alpine mesophytes. The common mesophytic medicinal plant species are Podophyllum hexandrum, Lavetera kashmiriana, Lotus corniculatus, Astragalus rhizanthus etc. The habitation nearby river beds Zanskar, Indus, Nubra and Shyok represented by Oasitic vegetation. The medicinal plants of this zone are Hippophae rhamnoides, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Allium przewalskianum, Peroveskiana, Mentha longifolia, Potentilla cuneata, Sedum ewersii, etc. Desertic flora found growing around high passes like Khardungla (18,380 ft), Changla (17,342 ft) and Tanglangla (17,240 ft).

Fig. 1: Comparison of dominant families of Ladakh and North-west Trans-Himalayas (NWT)

Fig. 2: Distribution of plant species in different altitudes of Ladakh

The same vegetation also found in the barren lands of Indus and Changthang valleys characterized by little rainfall, low humidity, extreme fluctuation of diurnal temperature and high velocity winds etc. Many of the plant species are distributed with altitude, latitude and longitude, spatial distribution pattern of MAP’s is given in Fig. 3. Some earlier researchers were also found effect of altitudinal variations on physiological or morphological parameters of the plant species (Gupta et al., 2011).

Rare, endangered and threatened (RET) species of ladakh: Threat is more difficult to characterize since it may be a natural consequence of biological or geological processes or be the result of past or present human activities directly or indirectly influencing the plant populations or their environment. The populations keep changing size and density over a period of time and such changes may make plant species rare, endangered and threatened, eventually leading in the extinction (Maikhuri et al., 1998; Bisht and Badoni, 2009). During the study, it has been observed that the frequency of some of important medicinal and aromatic plant of Ladakh with which it was earlier abound, have considerably declined due to their unscientific exploitation, natural calamities, road construction, uprooting for fuel, overgrazing and other activities (Dar et al., 2006). This destruction has rendered many species endangered and threatened. In recent years it was also observed that the population size and number are decreasing in higher elevations. Many species found in Ladakh are considered ‘critically endangered’ and many more are ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’. The following villages and areas are famous across Ladakh for their medicinal plant wealth and diversity; Sapi, Kanji, Kardhungla, Changla, North Pullu, South Pullu, Hunder and Summur etc. Many amchis from all over Ladakh travel to these hot spots to collect MAPs and they are thus sites of intense collection. Many plant species like Saussurea, Rheum, Artemisia, Thylacopsermum can see hanging along roadside near Khardungla 18,380 ft. and other high motorable passes. The forest department has also made extensive exercises to protect natural habitats and notified three protected areas (Hemis National Park, Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary and Changtang Wildlife Sanctuary), five wildlife reserves (Randum, Sabu-Chakur, Rizong basgo, Gya-Miru and Kangri) and three game reserves (Boodh Karbu, Tongri and Lung lang) in the region. The field observations on Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) medicinal and aromatic plants have been made and compared (Samant et al., 1998; Nayar and Sastry, 1987; IUCN, 2001) with are tabulated in Table 1. Overall situation of medicinal plants in Ladakh is under pressures and many wild species are threatened.

Cultivation of medicinal plants: Consumption of herbal medicines is widespread and increasing day by day. There is now wide recognition of the contributions that medicinal and aromatic plants make to the global economy and human welfare (WHO/IUCN/WWF, 1993). Many of the medicinal plants in developing countries are extracted from the wild, it may the result of loss of genetic diversity and has led to rapid depletion of a number of MAPs from their natural habitats (Maikhuri et al., 1998; Singh, 2002). Domestication and cultivation of MAPs is one of the viable options to meet the growing demands from the industries and to reduce the extraction pressures in the natural habitats of MAPs. Several researchers were studied on high altitudinal medicinal plants and observed that they were highly potent and required cultivation (Sultan et al., 2006; Hwang et al., 2009; Prakash et al., 2011). In Ladakh, Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) being conducted several workshops and field demonstrations on conservation practices of MAP species. Some important medicinal plant’s cultivation techniques for the region of Ladakh has presented in Table 2 which includes germination%, type of vegetative propagation, requirement of seed and manure and approximate production ha-1. Recently, some NGO’s are showed their interest on encouraging medicinal plant cultivation in Nubra, Indus and Zanskar valleys.

Fig. 3: Spatial distribution of MAP’s in different valleys of Ladakh (altitude in feet asl)

Table 1: List of threatened medicinal plants of Ladakh
IUCN status abbreviations: CR EN: Critically endangered; EN: Endangered, VU: Vulnerable; R: Rare; LR Nt: Low risk-near threatened; NL: Not listed; NWH: North west Himalayas; JK: Jammu and Kashmir

Table 2: Conservation techniques of some important MAP’s for Ladakh climate
FYM: Farm yard manure

It is surprising that most of the local people do not know the economical importance (market value) of highly medicinal value plant species like Podophyllum, Hippophae, Dactylorhyza etc. Besides lack of knowledge, there is a certain lack of co-ordination among the villagers about the importance of several species in modern systems of medicine and so, they are not willing to cultivate these herbs. Therefore, these people need to be made aware of the importance and to receive information collectively, so that they can discuss themselves, accompanied by their knowledge of technology for cultivation. Cultivation of MAPs could provide an opportunity to enhance incomes of people residing in harsh environments, such as high elevation zones of the Ladakh.

Strategies for conservation: Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) states that the systematic approach of medicinal plant conservation plays a vital role in environment management and development through traditional as well as scientific practices (Uniyal et al., 2006). Documentation and preservation of high altitudinal medicinal plant species of Ladakh and their traditional knowledge system are the most important aspect for the benefit of humankind, before it lost forever. This will require a systematic approach contains technology development, technology dissemination, technology assessment and refinement (Fig. 4). It’s a three directional process interlinked each step with other.

Fig. 4: A model plan for Conservation and sustainable development of MAP

Research and development institutions are having the role in development of suitable and sustainable technology; state govt and forest agencies have the role to implement the technology into field level and entrepreneurs have the role to make a sustainable market for the sector. However, no single institution/agency can meet all the challenges involved in this sector. The problems can only be overcome by building effective partnerships between farmers/ growers, extension agents, private sector, NGOs/GOs, researchers, policy makers and, more importantly by enhancing information exchange.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank all Amchies for sharing their traditional knowledge and also thankful to forest officials who co-operated in the extensive field surveys and all fellow colleagues at the DIHAR lab for help and support. We also thank the anonymous reviewer for valuable comments on the earlier version.

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