RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Here is a story of what happens when you love something too much. The story takes us for the third straight morning to the Himalayas. We've been learning about some threats to plant life there, including a cottony white flower called the Snow Lotus. Tibetans use it to make medicine. Tourists prize it. And people have been taking so many of the biggest plants, that over time, the survivors have been getting smaller, and are in danger of extinction. Elizabeth Arnold has the end of a National Geographic Radio Expedition to Yunnan Province.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: But China's booming new economy has not let go of the past. Alongside cell phones and Nike sneakers, you'll also find stalls and entire shops of herbal medicines, uses that date back thousands of years.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
ARNOLD: Tibetan interpreter Norbut(ph), guides us through a musty, medieval pharmacy of sorts.
NORBUT: This people, these people feel dizzy.
NORBUT: Yeah, dizziness.
ARNOLD: Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)
NORBUT: (Foreign Language spoken)
ARNOLD: Altitude sickness. We need a little of that.
ARNOLD: Unidentified Man: Caterpillar fungus, Chinese caterpillar fungus.
JAN SALICK: That's caterpillar fungus.
ARNOLD: Unidentified Man: For cancer.
SALICK: Unidentified Man: Yes.
WAYNE LAW: Your energy, here, yeah.
ARNOLD: I don't understand how that works. It looks like dried worms.
SALICK: Well, that's exactly, see, this is the caterpillar part, here. And the caterpillars attack by a fungus.
ARNOLD: What is the potent part of that?
SALICK: The whole thing.
ARNOLD: The whole thing, the worm and the tail.
ARNOLD: And we're thinking strength here, cancer.
SALICK: Unidentified Man: Yes. (Unintelligible) good for men.
ARNOLD: Unidentified Man: (Unintilligible)
ARNOLD: Wayne, how do you feel when you see all of these giant bags of snow lotus?
LAW: It kind of hurts.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARNOLD: You sure this is the site?
ARNOLD: Well, you've picked a magnificent spot to do some work.
LAW: Well, I don't know if I picked the spot, or if the plants picked the spot. But somehow we're up here.
ARNOLD: Why do they like to be up here, do you know?
LAW: I have no clue. Have no clue.
SALICK: They've got to be poor competitors, because there could be a thousand places to grow that would be a lot more out of...
LAW: Sometimes it's not very suitable for plant life up here.
SALICK: They are at the extremes of plant life in general.
ARNOLD: You kniw, we've been climbing for what, four hours or something? Three or four hours?
SALICK: More than that.
LAW: We've been climbing for six hours.
ARNOLD: Six hours of climbing in thin air to find a single scraggly plant clinging to loose shale.
LAW: Aren't you just drawn to it? I mean, like, it's tough, but it's fun and it's drawing you in, and...
ARNOLD: Law has been keeping a close eye on this particular species of snow lotus, which is the most prized, Saussurea Laniceps.
LAW: It's pretty clear that in some, the areas that we know there's harvesting, you can barely find any flowering plants anymore, compared to areas where we know there's no harvesting.
ARNOLD: He also discovered, by comparing plants currently growing here with 218 specimens preserved in herbariums, that the snow lotus has actually been shrinking.
LAW: They were much larger in the past. And we also compared it to sites that we knew were traditionally heavily harvested, and sites that were, there was hardly any harvesting pressure. And we found that the plants in the heavily harvested areas were significantly smaller.
ARNOLD: So, is that because people were taking the bigger plants?
LAW: Yeah. The bigger plants are easier to see, they're more valuable, they're worth more money. They can sell for more. So, they preferentially harvest larger plants, and so therefore, the smaller plants are the only ones left to sow their seeds, so, as it goes.
ARNOLD: The plant has lost some four inches in a hundred years, and according to Law and his advisor, Jan Salick, that's fairly rapid evolutionary change.
SALICK: What our goal is, is to model these populations, and find out how much could be harvested without threatening the populations. Traditional Tibetan medicine has harvested only a bit, and it's the modern pressure of this larger world market now, that has really started to threaten the species.
ARNOLD: Look where we are. We're way up high.
ARNOLD: It's amazing to me that people come up this high for a plant.
SALICK: Well, that's Tibetan medicine. I mean, they do a lot of collecting of medicinal plants at very high elevations, and some of their beliefs, they think that the higher up and the more sacred the site, the more potent the medicine.
ARNOLD: So what's the big deal, so this plant goes extinct?
LAW: It's part of a culture. I mean, the Tibetans value this as--if you look in the old Tibetan books, you can find this plant in their record books. Even in Chinese medicine, you can find this plant in the old record books. I think that's one of the most valuable things about ethnobotany, is that we're trying to preserve cultures.
SALICK: Yeah, we're trying to, ethno-botany in the past was kind of this long list of plants and what they're used for, and we're trying to bring modern science into it, so all of Wayne's population modeling and trying to figure out sustainable harvests and so on, it's a modern view of what ethno- botany can be. So, we have no intention of putting this on the world market as a medicinal plant, or stealing any knowledge from the local people. We're just trying to help conserve this plant for the future.
ARNOLD: Well, I have a question. My feet are starting to tingle. What does that mean? Is that an altitude thing?
SALICK: That means we're lacking oxygen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARNOLD: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.
INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and The National Geographic Society. And you can find previous reports in this series at our website, npr.org.
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