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Ayurveda out of balance: 93 percent of medicinal plants threatened with extinction

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dhanvantari, the Hindu god of AyurvedaTraditional Ayurvedic medicine could face an uncertain future as 93 percent of the wild plants used in the practice are threatened with extinction due to overexploitation, the Times of India reports.

The Botanical Survey of India recently prioritized 359 wild medicinal plant species and conducted an assessment throughout the country to determine their health. The news wasn’t good. Of the 359 species, 335 were categorized as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or near-threatened.

The survey used criteria and categories established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for its Red List of Threatened Species.

According to India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, 95 percent of plants used in Ayurvedic medicine are collected from the wild, and about two-thirds of that harvest uses "destructive means" that can damage or kill the plants.

To help keep these plant species from going extinct, the Indian government in 2008 initiated a program (pdf) to relocate species from the wild, study how to domesticate them, and promote sustainable harvest protocols. This survey is the latest step in that program.

Aside from its historical and cultural significance, Ayurvedic medicines could bring profits to India’s coffers. The Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) is currently exploring export opportunities for Ayurvedic medicine through Indian Medicines Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, a company owned by the Indian government. Already, Ayurvedic treatments, vacations and consultants are popular among some alternative health consumers in the U.S.

Of course, other traditional Asian medicines have been attacked for their use of parts from endangered animals, such as tiger bones and rhino horns, but Ayurveda has so far avoided such criticisms.

Image: Dhanvantari, the Hindu god of Ayurveda, via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. JohnSciNew 6:04 pm 04/5/2010

    Let’s hope they can save these plants. Traditional Ayurvedic medicine is a significant healing tradition.

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  2. 2. candide 8:37 pm 04/5/2010

    One major reason for this is simple: too many people ruining too many natural habitats.

    There may be many threats to human-kinds future on this planet, over population is surely near the top of anyone’s list.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 9:24 pm 04/5/2010

    candide – Absolutely. Moreover, overpopulation is likely a critical factor in all other environmental threats to humanity’s survival.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jennyhor2004 10:41 pm 04/5/2010

    It is very important that the Indian government doesn’t allow the likes of Monsanto and foreign pharmaceutical firms to get their grubby paws on the plants necessary for Ayurvedic medicine.

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  5. 5. DrZu 10:44 pm 04/5/2010

    Overpopulation is a myth.

    The World Health Organizaion is a PRIVATE CORP, just like the federal reserve, and the WHO recieves 2/3′s of its funding from…pharmaceudical companies. Talk about a conflict of interest.

    Who needs those plants when we can just use pills anyways?

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  6. 6. BJ Bonobo 11:21 pm 04/5/2010

    Well DrZu you can use pills if you like. Many of them are addictive. Some have side effects that can be fatal and certainly the right mixture can leave one in a worse state than they were in when they were simply suffering from some minor infection or bad living habits !

    Link to this
  7. 7. jtdwyer 11:21 pm 04/5/2010

    DrZu – "Overpopulation is a myth." I must be a myth as well, since I’ve seen the global population nearly triple in my lifetime. Meanwhile, most of the consumable resources we rely on for our survival have been severely diminished. What a perverse sense of humor you must have – this isn’t funny anymore.

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  8. 8. YaRight 11:40 pm 04/5/2010

    "Overpopulation is a myth.

    The World Health Organizaion is a PRIVATE CORP, just like the federal reserve, and the WHO recieves 2/3′s of its funding from…pharmaceudical companies. Talk about a conflict of interest."

    Awsome…well said, they want us to think (overpopulated) that in order that when they begin cull humanity it will be in order to save the earth from us, total Orwell.

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  9. 9. YaRight 11:42 pm 04/5/2010

    "Overpopulation is a myth.

    The World Health Organizaion is a PRIVATE CORP, just like the federal reserve, and the WHO recieves 2/3′s of its funding from…pharmaceudical companies. Talk about a conflict of interest."

    Well said, when they begin to cull us, they will say it is to save the earth from us, Orwell anyone.

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  10. 10. Iahmad 2:03 am 04/6/2010

    Risk of using Ayurveda today outweigh the benefits. Major consumption of these products is in Indian subcontinent where report or documentation of drug related death and injury is absolutely nil. People die or get mentally retarded due to heavy metal consumption through these products and events are never reported. It is better to have pills where there is strigent guidelines through regulatory authorities rather than these products which anyone can make and sell to public promising cure for cancer, AIDS etc.

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  11. 11. girishsasikumar 2:16 am 04/6/2010

    @lahmad
    I guess the Ayurveda you know of is some bottled medicine sold by some corporation which is nothing but crap and no way related to what really is Ayurveda. There is nearly no use of heavy metals in the true traditional Ayurveda which unfortunately is dying out.
    Regarding your pills with stringent guidelines, how many years do you test your pills 1 year, 2 year, 5 years ……. their side effects come out in course of generations. I can quote countless examples for that, everything from the heart pills causing liver failure to pills for blood pressure causing osteoporosis.
    Let us understand that the drug companies and WHO is here not to help us get healthy, but to make us sick and cure it so that they can make money. True traditional medicines everywhere on the planet has always been for the overall health of the individual and community and not a money spinning business for the practitioner or the corporation. Have a doubt, go read the Hippocrates oath.

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  12. 12. 1000101er 3:17 am 04/6/2010

    im not sure about overpop, but over use is definitely a culprit for the mass extinction happening now, i would highly recommend a small but powerful book by Stephen Meyer "The End of The Wild"

    the elite would have the rest of us proles believe that there is too many of us. this is their rather unimaginative way of getting us to reduce our consumption while they remain comfortable.

    so they have to frame it via over population, when the real issue is their short term profits and unsustainable predatory arbitrage methodologies.

    the issue is over consumption, production overhang, burnt out demand vacuum, unsustainable profit models that are like a snake eating itself, sheer rank greed, utter cynicism and a socio-pathology steeped in self-hatred turned outwards towards anything that moves.

    the hole at the center of human beings is a black hole and it will if given into, suck-in everything it touches, it will not be satisfied, it will never be satiated of its depravity, always setting new heights and still looking, wondering in amazement for more, it will not be reasoned with, it is the freaking terminator, and for a while now, as a whole, we’ve been giving into it pretty darn good.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 4:59 am 04/6/2010

    1000101er – You are correct that the true fundamental problem is over-consumption. Now, based on my personal observations, the global population has increased from under 3B to nearly 7B in my almost 60 years of life. The U.S. population has doubled in that time. These population factors are critical to the global resource over-consumption problem that you profoundly identified.

    You are correct in blaming the elite for this over-consumption, along with those would would like to be among the elite, which includes nearly everyone else. The most critical factor producing over-consumption is that the increasing population intends to increase its individual consumption of resources.

    These consumption objectives of the increasing world population ensures that resources will not even meet the population’s minimal requirements for survival in the near future. Of course, if reduced production occurs as a result of inadequate environmental conditions the resource shortfall will occur sooner than later.

    Those of us who can successfully reach a higher plane of existence prior to all this will be able to avoid the suffering of the unfortunate masses who have been mercilessly manipulated by the demon elite groups for their own benefit. I’m sure.

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  14. 14. telkins 7:49 am 04/6/2010

    Who is in the picture? Shiva? Blue skin might have helped me figure it out.

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  15. 15. 1000101er 8:29 am 04/6/2010

    jtdwyer – zerohedgelover@yahoo contact me we can talk further

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  16. 16. truthgathering 12:09 pm 04/6/2010

    Re: ’93 percent of medicinal plants threatened with extinction’.

    With the massive, global, aerial spraying operation – which has become known as ‘Chemtrails’ – it is not surprising so many things are dying. Numerous samples reveal there are very strange ingredients in the spray mixture. This global operation began around 1993, and became intensive in 2000.

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  17. 17. princeton 12:28 pm 04/6/2010

    What does the image of a Hindu God have to do with the subject of Ayurveda? Please show a little sensitivity and remove the picture.

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  18. 18. krabcat 2:34 pm 04/6/2010

    i do not know much about it but as far as i can tell, Ayurveda is a large part of Indian culture, as is Hinduism, and more people recognize a Hindu figure as part of that aria of the world, thus giving a geographic reference point.

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  19. 19. jtdwyer 9:38 pm 04/6/2010

    princeton, krabcat – I don’t like to read either, but at the bottom of the article there is an attribution for the photo: "Image: Dhanvantari, the Hindu god of Ayurveda, via Wikipedia". The "Wikipedia" text is a hot-link to the Wikipedia Ayurveda entry, which can probably provide all the background on Ayurveda you might need. Other hotlinks (highlighted text) can lead to additional sometimes useful information – try them out.

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  20. 20. no quizzle 3:09 am 04/7/2010

    @ telkins and princeton,

    The picture is -
    Dhanvantari, the Hindu god of Ayurveda

    no need to remove it, it is appropriate.

    Link to this
  21. 21. starryechoes 2:16 pm 04/7/2010

    Overpopulation is not a myth. I hope they can save the plants.

    Link to this
  22. 22. verdai 7:25 pm 04/7/2010

    yeah, Right!
    Regardless, the planet and We need its plants; and these extinctions just go on and on.
    Population control is nothing but education: birth control which is the same thing as pure enjoyment without the pains and penalties all Over the map.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Chandan Kumar Prasad 11:46 am 04/8/2010

    Hiiiiii

    This is Chandan from India.

    Link to this
  24. 24. jtdwyer 6:50 am 04/10/2010

    Chandan – Hi! I’ve been thinking that most of humanity’s problems result from overpopulation. Any ideas from India on how to humanely reduce the global population? Thanks in advance.

    Link to this
  25. 25. basudeba 10:54 am 04/10/2010

    What is going in the name of Ayurveda is nothing but quack treatment. We come from a family that traditionally used Ayurveda for treatment. But we are yet to see any one who understands the basic concepts of Ayurveda. The Professors of Ayurveda colleges rely more on Allopathy than Ayurveda because they have no clear conception of what are Vaata, Pitta, Kapha, what the six rasas represent and why are there only six rasas, what are the five and ten vaayus, what are Pancha bhootas and why the corrections are needed to cure a person.

    02. According to Ayurvedic principles, Nature provides everything needed for the different life forms and it regulates the supply to meet the demand. Thus, it advocates that only local plants should be used for preparing different types of medicines. Similarly, the nature of plants change according to the changes in the geoclimatic conditions. By trying to manipulate Nature, we distort the balance and simultaneously, we fail to identify the changes in the properties of the plants. Thus, the old system becomes unsuitable for the changing times. This is reflected by the relative inefficacy of Ayurvedic medicines giving the theory behind it a bad name.

    According to these predictions, in less than 4900 years, we will destroy all life form including plants from the world by our reckless actions of proving our superiority and changing the nature and natural distribution of the essential commodities like air, water, food, etc.

    For a scientific discussion on the above statement and further clarification, write to mbasudeba@gmail.com.

    Link to this
  26. 26. HeyRam 8:22 pm 04/10/2010

    @jtdwyer:
    I suggest that we exterminate wasteful material like Chandan (who likes to just affirm his existence by screaming ‘hiiiiiiiiii’). That might be a good start. As for your own posting, I’m assuming you’re being very cerebral and sarcastic. If you’re doing the do-goody-goody, then we have to next exterminate species like you that are born without a gut or balls or whatever that sustains "survival of the fittest".

    Now, let’s get away from my fascist pretend-drama and get to talk ‘business’. Talking of business, when the arrogant, supremely egotistic Bengali talks of the scientific method and world peace and preservation of the natural order (by writing to him), the we got to stop and reflect a bit. Suspect a bit. The common marketing gimmick Indians come with goes like this: I’m rational, objective, Yes-there-is-threat, but look at me and my snake oil, this is the true derivative of the formula handed me by my ancestors who are descended from the sages- because I’m Bengali/Tamil brahmin and so on and so froth.

    The business at hand is really about Ayurveda or the various interpretations of it and how commercial interests are exploiting it to the detriment of the loss of species. Of the many problems, a large population is certainly one. Because that will ted to throw up a large (statistically normal) proportion of crooks, ignorant people, merchandisers, priests, and the veritable Bengali of course (sorry, I couldn’t help that metaphor). So, populations reduction will help. Next, educate the people; particularly, invest in science education. Regulate the "black arts" of which Ayurveda is one despite the confusion and ‘mysticism’ its proponents create. Monitor the design, manufacture, distribution, and administration of the ayurvedic drugs. Study the statistics. (You can send it to the Indian Statistical Institute run by Bengalis in Kolkata). Publish it. We’ll know the truth.

    From my personal experience, I know two people – both my countrymen (Indians) who took Ayurvedic drugs on the promise that there is a 2,500 year cure for their problems and were debilitated for the rest of their lives. The "natural" herbs they were given had very high concentrations of steroids. [Ask any ayurvedic "doctor" (sic!) about steroids and they won't know anything].

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  27. 27. jtdwyer 3:37 am 04/11/2010

    basudeba, HeyRam – Thanks for the insights. While the subject of this particular article was ostensibly the threat of extinction for many of the plants and I presume herbal remedies traditionally used in Ayurveda treatments, its common for such unregulated remedies to be produced with replacement ingredients when either the correct ones are unavailable or considered too expensive. I’d guess that this economic rule, along with shortages of correct ingredients are contributing to some of the critical problems you mention. Of course, just like communicating with unidentified individuals on the internet, the ingredients used to produce unregulated medicines can potentially cause serious harm. However, my real interest in the little greeting to someone from India was really exactly as stated.

    I think that most of the serious problems facing humanity in general are at least compounded by population growth, be it global warming, pollution, nutritional production, decreasing biodiversity/extinctions, ad nauseam. This indicates human population reduction as potentially the single most effective method of addressing all critical global problems.

    While global population could be reduced using a myriad of inhumane clinical methods without the cooperation of the populace, maintaining democratic ideals while still achieving the human reduction of global population is a much more difficult problem.

    Having traveled somewhat (including Japan) but never to India, I thought it might be appropriate in this blog to ask Indians about ideas for reducing global population. As far as I know, the most effective reasonably humane approach actually in use is the single child restriction of China. Are any methods of population reduction being generally discussed in India? I’d really appreciate any useful input. Thank you.

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  28. 28. HeyRam 8:35 pm 05/5/2010

    @jtdwyer:
    Yes, India has indeed been trying to reduce the rate of growth of population for about 5 decades now with varying success. It could have been much better but for the intractable and complex web of problems. But to be fair, every government has indeed maintained a fair degree of attention on the issue . During Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s administration, public officials in some northern Indian towns were coercive and misled illiterate/gullible people into vasectomies without their knowledge. That was one of the main reasons Mrs.Gandhi lost the next election. So, to your point about democracy and its challenges in controlling population, there are two sides to it as the above example will hopefully demonstrate. Does that answer your question?

    I personally think a rational, scientific education imbibes a people with the attitudes, behaviors and information to understand the economics, nay reasons, as to why a smaller manageable family is better. My own opinion is that India has a long, long way to go there. But then, I also recognize that it has come a really long way (through democratic means too, however faulty) and that if it hasn’t made the progress that we see today, the country (and the world) would have been even worse off. Dangerously worse off.

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  29. 29. Aryan 10:32 am 10/1/2010

    Ayurveda physicians or pharmaceutical industries are not at all worried of medicinal plant extinction because adulteration is rampant these days. Out of useful 500+ medicinal plants dealt in ayurveda, only 20 are mostly used. These 20 plants (myrobalans etc.) are not at the verge of extinction. Ayurveda pharmacies and physicians will carry on their business as usual without feeling responsibility!

    Link to this
  30. 30. Calgary Massage Therapy Expert 3:12 pm 03/14/2011

    We are slowly destroying our future

    Link to this

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