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Medicinal Plants Disappear From Kashmir's Mountains due to Climate Change and Habitat Loss

The construction of roads and other infrastructure in such sensitive areas is a severe problem since it harms the ecology as a whole.

The 55-year-old Shadi Lal Tikoo, who owns a small herbal shop in the Seer village of the Anantnag region of southern Kashmir, evenly distributes dried herbs on little pieces of paper before rolling them into tiny packets. He then hands the packets to the woman who had come to treat her respiratory infection.

Tickoo, who claims to be the ninth generation in the line, has been using these wild plants to cure patients for the past 38 years since he took over from his father. He is, however, up against difficulties because the therapeutic plants that were easily accessible to his ancestors are drastically declining.

"These plants are very sensitive, and an increase in pollution and variations in the climate have affected them," he said.

The woman, for instance, had a respiratory infection and an irregular heartbeat, and he would have treated her with a herb called kahzaban (Arbenia benthamii), which is beneficial in such a condition.

The herb is now difficult to find. Therefore, we must use substitutes that might not be as effective as kahzaban," he said.

According to researchers, the Himalayas and the Pir Panchal range in Jammu and Kashmir are home to approximately 1123 medicinal plants. These herbs are used to make Ayurvedic and unani medications to treat various diseases, from digestive ailments to cardiac issues. For various reasons, including pollution, smuggling, over-exploitation and climate change, some of these plants are declining.

For example, nowadays, it can be difficult to get plants like Arnebia benthamii, commonly known as kahzaban, which were once used to treat heart problems. The researchers have discovered 50 medicinal plants at "urgent risk of decline" and require conservation, including Trillium govanianum, locally known as tripater.

Dr Anzar Khuroo, a botanist at the University of Kashmir who has been monitoring the decline of medicinal plants, said that there is no doubt that the number of these plants has reduced over time.

"Over time, we have lost many of the forests, meadows, and water bodies that were their habitats. A plant also disappears when its home is destroyed," he said.

He noted that the Himalayan region is one of the 36-mega biodiversity zones in the world and is home to some of the endemic plant species, "but many of these plant species confront a serious threat of decline and need prompt action," he said.

For instance, he said, the medicinal herb Saussurea costus, locally known as kuth in the region, is in danger of going extinct. He claims that the plant was once widely distributed in the meadows of the well-known tourist resort of Gulmarg. Like many others, the plant used to grow in the shade of trees, and deforestation has expanded the forest gap and led to their decrease.

"Habitat damage in the form of deforestation has led to their decline in the area," he says.

According to studies, between 2001-2021, the tree cover in Jammu and Kashmir declined by over 4.06 Kha, equal to a 0.38% decrease in tree cover since 2000. The number of medicinal plants that used to grow on the forest floor or in the shade of these trees has also been impacted by the reduction in forest cover.

Khuroo said meadows in the area have shrunk, and habitat has been lost due to the development of tourist destinations.

"Some of the golden meadows have also been destroyed due to it. These days, plants can only be found in areas that have not yet seen the effects of so-called development. The destruction of the environment is considered the means for the economy," he said. He continued that while this “ecological vandalism” may have some immediate advantages, the long-term effects are disastrous.

He said smuggling, which has become more prevalent in Kashmir over the past few years, has become a significant problem because it is drastically reducing the quantity of plants.

"Smugglers previously worked in the western Himalayas, but they have since relocated to Kashmir, partly due to the improvement in the local circumstances and the disappearance of some of these plant species from these regions," he said.

Besides smuggling, climate change, human interference, pollution, and overexploitation continue to be serious challenges. The construction of roads and other infrastructure in such sensitive areas is a severe problem since it harms the ecology as a whole.

"Since plants are extremely sensitive and any change in their natural environment has a significant impact on them, the increase in temperature and harsh weather patterns throughout time have had an impact," according to Mohammad Suleiman, a professor at the Government Degree College in Anantnag.

His floristic studies, which is yet to get published, over the course of more than three years, have documented over 350 plant species, including medicinal plants, at one of the IUCN-recognised key biodiversity areas located in the Heerpora area of southern Kashmir that are facing a threat at different levels.

"During my research, I discovered that many plants have moved uphill, presumably due to changing climates," he says.

He claims that the area has been designated as a Key Biodiversity Area since it contains several rare plant species, including Blue Polyp, Snow Lotus, Aconitum, Gentiana Kurroo, and lililium polphyllum which have been declared endangered by the IUCN Red Book, has, "Since their numbers have slightly increased in this biodiversity reserve, which is spread out over 341 square kilometres, we can conserve them in these protected areas," he says.

He suggested that these things can be stopped if the regulatory laws are implemented fully.

The Kashmir Forest Department has begun to produce these plants close to the forest areas in a natural habitat-like setting in light of the fall in the number of plant species. One such facility, the medicinal plant resource centre, is located in the Rafiabad region of northern Kashmir and holds close to 50,000 plants.

"We created this centre with the intention of preserving these medicinal plants. The endangered Kuth, Saussurea costus, has been grown here in the centre. To protect the plant species, we are creating additional eco-parks like the Yenkara biodiversity park in Doabgah in the Jhelum Valley forest division,” Mansoor Rahim, the forester of the area, said.

He claims that to deter people from smuggling and increase their income, the forest department has also started a community forest initiative, which provides alternative livelihoods to the local population primarily involved in smuggling.

"We created walnut farms by planting about 4,000 trees, and we devoted them to the people who will care for the trees with our instruction and sell the crops to make a living," he said, adding that they have more of these initiatives planned under joint forest management to involve people in the preservation of these plants.

Suhail Bhat is an independent journalist. All views are personal.

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