Issues synonymous with the traditional complementary medicine industry

The high demand for medicinal plants has been met by the indiscriminate harvesting of naturally occurring plants in the forests. As a result, many plant species have become endangered and some even extinct. This is due to the fact that much of the collection has been done by people who are more concerned with immediate monetary returns rather than long-term sustainable supplies. The problem of over-exploitation occurs due to wasteful methods of harvesting and collection as well as the lack of proper management of those resources.

There are many factors which have contributed to the problem of extinction. These include deforestation (conversion of forested land) and over-collection/exploitation of certain potential species (basically raw material for the industry). Extensive logging without proper control and illegal logging could have also made the problem worse. Species with a high demand from the industry will result in a situation of over-collection when harvesters compete with each other to collect the species from the forest. Although the impact of extinction can only be traced after some time, there is an urgent need to prevent species depletion and extinction.

Some studies have shown that species extinction has already occurred. The number of plant species estimated to be extinct by the years 2000 2050 varies from 5% to 10% or even 25% (refer to Mohd Azmi & Awang Noor, 2001). This shows that the probability of large numbers of plant species being lost forever from the tropical rain forests is high. According to UNEP/FAO, the tropical rainforests, which contain about half of the world’s plants, are declining at an alarming rate of 16.8 million ha per annum (WHO, IUCN, WWF, 1993). The extensive harvesting of plant species, especially medicinal plants from the forest, will result in genetic erosion and the knowledge of the potential uses of traditional plant medicine itself.

The over exploitation of medicinal plants from the forest is basically due to the crucial needs of the industry to meet market demand. With the promising market value of the traditional medicine products, manufacturers have to provide sustainable supplies of their products to the consumer. Therefore, a consistent supply of the raw material is important in order for the industry to achieve its production targets. As for the supply side, collectors or regular suppliers to manufacturers have to compete with one another and obtain as much of the resources as they can to get the high payments offered by  industry. The suppliers are paid relatively high prices, ranging from RM9.00 per kg to RM130.00 per kg, depending on the state and the difficulty of obtaining the resources (Mohd Azmi & Norini, 2001). With the regular harvesting of medicinal plants and insufficient efforts to replant the resources in the forest, the problem of inconsistent supplies of medicinal plants to the industry will continue to occur.

In the case of Malaysia, over-collection of some species has been observed in Langkawi, Kedah (Latiff, 1989). The popular species being observed are periuk kera (Nepenthes) and bunga pakma (Rafflesia cantleyi). The possibility that other species might become extinct including some highly demanded medicinal plants such as tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia), kacip fatimah (Labisia pumila), mengkudu (Morinda citrifolia) and lidah buaya (Aloe vera) is high without proper management (Anon, 1999b).  Soepadmo (1995) also mentioned that medicinal plant species that grow wild in the forest are affected by the problem of over-collection. These species are sandalwood (Aquilaria malaccensis), tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia), penawar hitam (Goniothalamus giganteus), tongkat ali hitam (Goniothalamus macrophyllus), kacip fatimah (Labisia photoina) and rafflesia (Rafflesia cantleyi).  Mohd Azmi & Norini (2001) also found that medicinal plants such as tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia), ubi jaga (Smilax myosotiflora), periuk kera (Nepethes gracilis), and selayak hitam (Goniothalamus macrophyllus) are becoming scarce and collectors face difficulty in obtaining the resources to meet industry’s requirements.

It is expected that medicinal plants that are harvested for their roots and stems and also occur in isolation are more vulnerable to extinction. The production of those resources (seeds) normally takes a longer period of regeneration.  For example, tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia) flowers only when it is 10 years old, while rancang tembaga (Artaboltrys sp.), which is good for boosting sexual potency, takes about 20 years to grow (Anon, 1996). Therefore, some conservation measures for those medicinal plants need to be formulated besides reviewing the policy regarding the harvesting of resources from the forest.

One way to control the problem of extinction is through proper management of the resources in the forest. However, information related to the availability of the resources is also crucial before any recommendations can be made regarding the management of these resources. Regular monitoring and inventory studies could provide an early indication of the availability of medicinal plants and, therefore, could act as guide for replanting purposes.

To date, there has been scant research quantifying medicinal plants in the forest. Awang Noor & Mohd Shahwahid (1995) suggested using the systematic strip line plots to quantify all the non-timber forest products (NTFPs), including medicinal plants. The method was modified by Norini & Mohd Azmi (2001) to determine the availability of tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia) and other medicinal plants in three forest reserves in Kedah. The study revealed that the distribution of tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia) more frequently occurred in the lowland areas rather than in the high land for the three sites. Therefore, it can be concluded that tongkat ali is found largely in the lowlands, which is usually more prone to over-exploitation. It is also found that most of the trees are small, probably due to larger tongkat ali having been removed by medicinal plant collectors. In short, by conducting inventory studies, relevant information on the availability, distribution and characteristics of medicinal plants can be analyzed and characterized. The information can then be used by the authorities for further monitoring purposes and future management planning.