A common herb of the Himalayas, the Himalayan trillium, could soon go locally extinct in many parts of its range in India if its excessive harvests are not regulated, claims a recent study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
The Himalayan trillium — found across India, Bhutan, Nepal and China — is a natural source of steroidal saponins which are important components of steroidal drugs. The plant is popular in traditional Chinese medicine. Increased demands over the last decade has made its illegal collection from the wild a rather lucrative business in India: a kilogram fetches about Rs.3,000-5,000.
A team including researchers at Uttarakhand's Kumaun University studied the techniques used to gather the plant in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. They accompanied plant collectors on gathering trips (usually between April-May) and interviewed 579 plant gatherers and 19 traders. They found that current gathering practices are entirely destructive: a single team uproots all plants in an area lest other collecting teams get to them later. Gatherers also noted that they now have to travel further away from their villages to collect the plants. Traders, who buy the plants in sacks from villagers, reported that it moves through a well-established illegal network to Tibet.
The team also studied the occurrence and regeneration of the plant through field surveys of 17 populations growing in three different regions. They found trilliums growing mostly in moist hill slopes with dense tree cover. The plants germinated from underground tubers immediately after snow melt in April and became dormant in September as winter set in.
Mature plants (which can live to 30 years or more) usually produce only one flower per year and vegetative reproduction through tubers occurs only in very old plants, said Harsh Chauhan from Kumaun University and lead author of the study. Unregulated harvests combined with such low levels of reproduction and other pressures like grazing could cause local extinction of the plant in many regions.
“We did not find trilliums in many regions where it was recorded before,” said Chauhan.
“The scale at which it is collected will surely result in a huge reduction in population and even local extinctions,” said Navendu Page, a plant ecologist independent of the study. It would be important to include it as a schedule species under the Wildlife Protection Act to ensure more protection, he added.