Sacred Protection for Medicinal Plants The second of a three-part report looks at the role of Tibetan medicinal plants in China's Yunnan Province. Global climate change and a growing world market may be threatening the plants.
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Sacred Protection for Medicinal Plants

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Sacred Protection for Medicinal Plants

Sacred Protection for Medicinal Plants

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The international interest in Tibetan medicine may be driving some plant species toward extinction. That's just one concern of an American who is studying the effects of climate change and over-harvesting on mountain vegetation.

Her name is Jan Salick. She is working with a team of Tibetan and Chinese scientists, and we will focus on their efforts in part two of a National Geographic Radio Expedition to China. Elizabeth Arnold reports on the past and future of Tibetan medicinal plants in the Yunnan Province.


The Kunming Institute of Botany is a cluster of lush botanical gardens and concrete laboratories on the outskirts of Yunnan's capital city. This is where scientists analyze and synthesize China's wealth of medicinal plants. But the institute's deputy director, Yang Yongping, says none of that work can happen without first learning traditional uses.

Dr. YANG YONGPING (Deputy Director, Kunming Institute of Botany): It's amazing. I have had background of the plant taxonomy. And so, it's not that difficult for me to identify different species, that species. But the local partner, they know more about the plant. I feel most exciting if they share the knowledge with the villager, and also the (unintelligible) doctor.

ARNOLD: The Chinese government's goal is to develop a profitable pharmaceutical industry here in Yunnan. But Yang says, within the institute, there's also a firm commitment to conservation.

Dr. YONGPING: We have the responsibility, because of the plant is such as the endemic part, is only available in this area. So, in this region, we have more responsibility to keep those species in our earth village.

ARNOLD: Conservation is already built into Tibetan culture, where plants are considered both medicinal and spiritual. High in the Eastern Himalayas, construction work mars the Buddhist tranquility of Sumtseling, the largest monastery in Yunnan. Less than a decade ago, this place was in ruins, the result of benign neglect during China's cultural revolution.

But today, its white-washed walls and gold leaf are meticulously being restored, and some 800 monks now live here, testimony to the revival of Tibetan culture in China.

(Soundbite of chanting)

ARNOLD: With that revival has come renewed interested in traditional medicine that's rooted and Buddhism. The Chinese Institute of Botany has partnered with Jan Salick, an ethnobotanist from the Missouri Botanical Garden, who studies plants and their cultural uses. Salick points to a particularly ornate Buddha, holding a blue bowl in one hand, and a plant in the other.

Doctor JAN SALICK (Ethnobotanist): He is the foundation of Tibetan medicine. And he is also the one that people come to pray to if they're ill. So, it's not just, you know, plants that are ground up and you take as medicine, but the whole belief system that goes with Tibetan medicine.

ARNOLD: That system holds in high esteem the monks here, clad in orange robes, who chant and sway near the medicine Buddha. But traditional doctors also hold a special status in this culture.

(Soundbite of children)

ARNOLD: A hundred miles northwest of Sumtseling is a tiny Tibetan village carved into a hillside. Chindru, a 70-year old doctor, lives here in the largest and most elaborately decorated wooden house.

Village children roam freely through what seems to be more community center than private home. The smell of candles made from yak butter is stifling. The doctor gestures to small vials of dried plants tucked into the niches of the an ornate shrine. Tibetan translator Norbu(ph), explains its medicine.

Mr. NORBU (Tibetan Translator): So, this is like it's made of sacred plants. If you put in a shrine, then this can get a lot of power. You know, transfer the power.

ARNOLD: So this is getting power.

Mr. NORBU: Yes.

ARNOLD: This isn't an offering

Mr. NORBU: No.

ARNOLD: This is getting power from the shrine.

Mr. NORBU: From the shrine, yes.

ARNOLD: Does he collect the plants for his medicines, or does he get the plants from someone else?

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. NORBU: He collects it by himself in the mountain.

ARNOLD: So, he's still going up there.

Mr. NORBU: Yeah. Yeah.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. NORBU: He doesn't touch the plants which are collected by people.

ARNOLD: The doctor, a lean, agile man with a dark lined face, quietly lifts a conch shell from the shrine and blows.

(Soundbite of conch shell being blown)

Mr. NORBU: This sound represents the sound of Buddha, that the founder of Buddhism is his name is (unintelligible). Yup. (unintelligible) his voice.

ARNOLD: In the peaks high above this village, where Chindru does his collecting, he's noticed a change. Some species have become scarce, others have simply vanished. With Chindru at her side, Salick and a field crew of Chinese and Tibetan scientists have been studying alpine vegetation. While her primary focus has been climate change, Salick says over-harvesting is a much more immediate threat, given growing international demand for medicinal plants.

Dr. SALICK: You know, any time I tell people that I'm studying Tibetan medicine, then all of a sudden, Oh! Do you know where I can get a hold of this or that?

Ms. ARNOLD: Really?

Dr. SALICK: You know, a lot of people come to me as a supplier, and I'm, you know, I'm not willing to do that, you know. That's not my job, and I'm worried about the effects of that. So...

Ms. ARNOLD: There's people out there harvesting this stuff...

Dr. SALICK: Yeah, and there are people that are harvesting, and there are people that are harvesting it in different ways. The Tibetan doctor that we're working with here harvests a little bit for his patients, and, you know, for local use, and that doesn't seem to have a tremendous effect on the plant populations. But then you get these commercial harvesters that are out there for a much larger market, and that is what's really causing problems.

Ms. ARNOLD: More than half the species, some 6,000 plants in this Province, are used for medicinal purposes. And an estimated four billion people worldwide are buying them. But fortunately, within Tibetan culture, the underpinnings of conservation already exist.

(Soundbite of car horns)

The busses of Chinese tourists and ox carts of Tibetan pilgrims announce a roadside rest stop that is both scenic and sacred. The view from this pass is of Kawa Karpo, one of eight sacred mountains in the Tibetan region. The pilgrims have smears of dirt on their foreheads from prostrating in the direction of the stunning snowcapped peak.

Salick gestures to a wooded hillside across the busy street.

Dr. SALICK: Behind us are the sacred oak forests. And they have huge trees. We did an initial study, where we found out that plant diversity, useful plant species, endemic plant species, are much more common in sacred sites than in non-sacred sites.

Ms. ARNOLD: They're pockets of biodiversity, protected by religion in a rapidly changing landscape. With growing demand for these plants, Salick's aim is to partner with traditional doctors like Chindru who are influential, and to encourage the Tibetans and Chinese to harvest plants in a more sustainable way.

In short, advise them as to when, where, and how best to harvest without wiping out the species.

Dr. SALICK: The Tibetans keep reminding me that sacred sites are a much greater thing than just a conservation site, which I fully acknowledge. I mean, for them, it's a connection with the ethereal, with eternity, with the universe, which is admittedly much greater than conservation. But it works for conservation, too, so that we don't have to just come in and set aside lands and disrupt traditional practices. But we can use traditional practices for conservation purposes.

Ms. ARNOLD: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow, we'll look at one of the most desired plants in Yunnan, a disappearing species of snow lotus.

Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. And if you'd like to follow Elizabeth Arnold's trek in the eastern Himalayas, just visit

(Soundbite of chanting)


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