Botanic Gardens Conservation International
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‘Miracle’ Cures Face Extinction

16 January 2008

Catharanthua roseus

Catharanthus roseus (Rosy periwinkle) treats
4 out of 5 children with leukaemia

Photo © Peter S. Goltra for the
National Tropical Botanical Garden

A new global study from BGCI reveals that hundreds of medicinal plant species, whose naturally-occurring chemicals make up the basis of over 50% of all prescription drugs, are threatened with extinction.

Humans Overwhelmingly Reliant on Plants for Medicine

Sparking off fears of a global health care crisis, a consortium of leading experts acting through London-based organisation, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), are calling for urgent action to help ‘secure the future of global healthcare’.

With 70% of all newly-developed drugs in the United States, the world’s largest and wealthiest pharmaceuticals market, being derived from natural sources, it is clear that despite major scientific advances, the future of human healthcare is still overwhelmingly reliant on the plant kingdom.

"Habit loss, over-population, increasing urbanisation, destructive harvesting and agricultural expansion have all contributed to this problem," said Belinda Hawkins, author of the report.

"Up to 15,000 medicinal plants are under threat in the wild and, if no action is taken, some of them could be extinct in under ten years."

Resources Being Squandered 

“We are using up a wide range of the world’s natural medicines and squandering the potential to develop new remedies“ says Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of BGCI “And yet it is perfectly possible to prevent plant extinctions”.

There was a time when scientists predicted that developments in biochemistry would mean that most if not all new drugs would be simply synthesised in the lab.

However in recent years it has become increasingly clear that this is unlikely to happen. For while scientists are able to artificially replicate several medicinally-active compounds found in plants, a overwhelming number of these are still eluding all attempts to copy them, or it is simply not commercially viable to do so.

Cancer Drug Defies Synthesis 

Take the world’s most widely-used cancer drug, Paclitaxel, for instance. Derived from the bark of several species of yew trees, its complex chemical structure and biological function has defied all attempts of commercial synthesis, gaining it the reputation for being “the kind of drug that would be impossible to design from scratch”. Yet with, until very recently, an average of 6 trees needed for just a single dose, its use has decimated wild yew populations across the world, with 80% of the trees in China’s Yunnan Province, once famous for its yew forests, destroyed within a three year period. “The dramatic decline in a range of yew species, highlights the global extinction crisis that is facing medicinal plant species.” says Oldfield.

Nowhere is this dependence on medicinal plants more acute than in developing countries, with the World Health Organisation estimating that an astonishing 80% of the global population, some 5.3 billion people, rely on traditional plant-based medicine as their primary form of healthcare, and in many cases collection and sales of these plants provide their only form of livelihood. Yet it is exactly in these areas that these plants are under most threat, putting the rural poor at the sharp end of the looming healthcare crisis.

“The loss of the world’s medicinal plants may not always be at the forefront of the public consciousness, however it is not an overstatement to say that if the precipitous decline of these species is not halted, it could destabilise the future of global healthcare, putting many millions of lives at risk.” reports Belinda Hawkins the report author.

What BGCI is Doing About It

The BGCI report for the first time combines the work of the world’s leading botanists, conservationists, healthcare professionals and traditional healers to identify which medicinal plant species are most at risk and what steps are needed to save them. 

“Our report calls for co-ordinated global conservation efforts to save medicinal plants working with local communities and drawing on the skills and expertise of botanic gardens that have been involved in medicinal plant study since their first establishment 500 years ago.,” says Oldfield.

The report highlights the species considered to be most at risk and BGCI is developing new programmes to address the concerns. Partners are invited from all sectors to collaborate in this crucial work. Contact us for more information - and send us updates and proposals whether you are working in this field or want to support it.

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