Smuggle of medicinal plants goes unnoticed in Kashmir

Srinagar Sep 26: Mohammad Junaid, a research scholar focusing on the reproductive biology of medicinal plants, embarked on two journeys to Afarwat in North Kashmir’s Gulmarg area within a month. His goal was to gather samples of Arnebia benthamii, also known as Kahzaban. Unfortunately, both attempts ended without success.

Kahzaban flowers have been identified for their potential benefits to individuals with heart issues and their high antioxidant content. Junaid expressed his concern, stating that eight years ago, Kahzaban was abundant, but it has become increasingly rare. Finally, in August of this year, he successfully obtained his sample from the remote hill station of Sonamarg.

Jammu and Kashmir is renowned for its diverse array of medicinal plants used in medical treatments, aromatherapy, and cosmetics. However, the global demand for these plants, especially from Europe, China, Japan, and other nations, has made the region an attractive target for smugglers.

According to Junaid there are 1,123 documented medicinal plant species in Jammu and Kashmir, with the majority facing threats.

“If there were 500 plants of any species at one place a decade ago, now their number has reached 50,” he said, highlighting the significant decline in medicinal plant populations due to destruction and over harvesting.

A study published in 2018 identified 50 native medicinal plant species in the region as in need of “immediate conservation action”, based on ecological and socioeconomic factors.

Bashir Ahmad, a resident of Sonamarg said that in the first week of September he walked hours to the upper reaches.

There, he spotted a threatened Trillium govanianum plant, commonly known as Tripater, and uprooted it.

“We extract plants from the soil then sell to people,” he said. “This is how we make our living. We get Rs 2,500 for each kilogramme of Trillium.”

Trillium govanianum is thought to cure many sexual disorders, especially infertility in men. It is also a cancer treatment.

A resident of the town of Tangmarg said locals are paid Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per kg of Trillium govanianum. After that, it is sent to Chandigarh in Punjab in trucks, then to European countries and China.

“It has a value of Rs 70,000 per kg there,” he said.

The extraction of many medicinal plants is banned in Jammu and Kashmir. However, smugglers get around this by sending local men and women to the forests to pick the plants, as well as wood and dried leaves. This makes it difficult for forest guards to identify wrongdoing.

The Himalayas are one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots and are rich in endemic plants (found nowhere else on Earth).

Some of the region’s medicinal plants are rarely found anywhere else.

Their uses are extensive. Saussurea costus, a type of thistle known locally as kuth, is used to treat joint and back pain, ulcers, dysentery and fever. From Aconitum heterophyllum (paewakh), a lotion is made to treat headache and cough. A decoction made from the leaves of Dioscorea deltoidea (kraeth) is used as eye drops to treat infections and sharpen eyesight. But their usefulness has led to exploitation.

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