Fantasy Project B (Borderlands Western Tibet)


For this project I have had to rely upon a newspaper article and brief accounts on web-sites; I have e-mailed those involved a number of times but never had any sort of response. They were invited to attend the 1st Kohli Commemorative Event in Delhi in 2003 and to supply the location of one of their field operations, so a colleague passing through the district could visit but no luck; I have been able to discuss the evidence of what has supposedly been achieved by the project with the most knowledgeable local expert - their thoughts were not flattering.... Despite all this, I offered to collaborate but no reply.  Surely, given their stated admirable objectives, they should have "jumped" at the chance of being assisted by the leading authority on the study, cultivation and conservation of Himalayan flora!?

I first became aware of the 'project' in 2000, when an article which appeared in a leading UK newspaper was sent to me.  I was astonished at the claims made, knowing from first-hand experience how difficult it is to ACTUALLY 'Save' rare flora!  An award received was supposed to help save 'rare' flora used in medicines.... Just HOW this was meant to happen or had happened up to that point, was and has never been explained!  Those involved were definitely NOT experts though were good at setting up web-sites and writing reports... As far as I have been able to ascertain, those involved have no relevant training or qualifications.  As for the simplistic 'surveys' conducted, they cannot possibly have been able to ACCURATELY decide which were 'critically' endangered!  This information is just NOT known! I know the flora of this region better than anyone alive but could not come up with such a list....  I am CERTAIN that some of the species on the list were fact I know that those involved in the project CANNOT identify most of the plants they come across in the Himalaya - so just how could they have undertaken a survey of rare plants?

And just supposing it had proven possible to cultivate a number of species utilised in traditional Tibetan Medicine (as opposed to the those collected illegally by Indians for use in Ayurvedic medicine) I am sure the project was blissfully unaware of the issue which I identified in Bhutan (see: i.e. would the local doctors of traditional medicine in the borderlands of Western Tibet (known as amchis) actually agree to using material which had been GROWN rather than collected directly from the wild?

Such 'reports' and 'claims' are ideal to feed to journalists who specialise in tabloid-style reporting.  Let not facts, or valid scientific evidence get in the way of a sensationalist head-line.  Does it matter that the articles are misleading?  No..  Just throw in a few 'experts' and better-still, a big name or two, to falsely provide 'credibility'....

Pressed specimen of PODOPHYLLUM HEXANDRUM collected in 1931 in Zamgskar by Dr Walter Koelz

Once again, the 'Himalayan May-apple' (Podophyllum hexandrum) was rolled out as an example of one of the "most threatened", when this is untrue!  This species typically inhabits forests and forest clearings.  In the borderland districts of Western Tibet the project ALLEGEDLY surveyed, it is very much at the edge of its distribution, so INEVITABLY will be at most uncommon, often rare and for much of the area, not found at all- but this is not a reflection of its inherent rarity or as a result of being under threat. After all, why would a plant accustomed either to shade or high levels of moisture be able to grow in high-altitude deserts!  Those running the project (and those 'experts' on the panels which assessed this project) do not understand the basics of plant ecology, geography and distribution or how to identify plants. Since few, if any, on such panels have any relevant botanical training, this is hardly surprising but still inexcusable....

Close-up of dried, pressed fruit of PODOPHYLLUM HEXANDRUM  (see image above of whole specimen)' note seeds are visible

Even cosmopolitan weeds (of which there are quite a number in the borderlands of  have distributions restricted to certain altitudes, climatic conditions and terrain.  So the fact that Podophyllum hexandrum is difficult to find under arid conditions in the borderlands of Western Tibet is MEANINGLESS.  Any teacher of 'A' level biology would be obliged to mark a student using this as an example in an essay, as FAIL!  I have come across this plant in the Suru Valley (which is moister than any other part of Ladakh) sheltered at the base of boulders for protection but there are no records for the more arid Upper Indus Valley. Members of the 1981 University of Southampton Expedition to Zangskar did not find it there.  Dr Walter Koelz found this in Lahoul in the 1930s and described its uses in local Tibetan Medicine in an article published in the late 1970s.  It is common on the lower slopes of the Rohtang Pass in Spring. Dr R.R. Stewart found it very common in thin forest in W.Pakistan and Kashmir @ 1800-3600m. Despite its listing under CITIES, this plant is neither rare nor endangered (let alone critically so) in the Himalaya!!

Herbarium label for PODOPHYLLUM  HEXANDRUM for above specimen - collected for Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute in 1931

Another plant, this time an aconite was mentioned as to its high price - yet they could not provide a full species name (it was misspelt in the newspaper article) using aff. - then the species name.  Very few people understand what "aff." means in taxonomic (botanical) terms and it is rather crucial to identify the correct Aconitum as most are poisonous and recognising the CORRECT species is ESSENTIAL for use in medicinal formulations!  To use "aff." in such circumstances illustrated the lack of understanding of all concerned.

Apparently, the substantial financial award was going to go to "develop" ways of adding value to local people's income by processing the plants they cultivate...  REALLY?  And just WHICH species were being cultivated?

Examples of the project in action "in-the-field"

1.    According to a web-site, there is a MEDICINAL PLANT nursery in a village in the borderlands of Western Tibet which promises enhanced income generation for women.  Another ADMIRABLE objective but has it delivered?

They have, apparently, sown seeds of INULA RACEMOSA, CARUM CARVI and SAUSSUREA COSTUS - supposedly to REDUCE harvesting of the species from the wild.  Well, 3 species, in one nursery is hardly going to save too many 'rare' plants!  But more importantly, none of the three are rare and only one is even a NATIVE species.  How can growing the Inula and Saussurea reduce harvesting of plants in the wild when two are NOT wild plants.  THEY DO NOT GROWN NATURALLY IN THE WILD..... Is this some kind of joke?

Both INULA RACEMOSA and SAUSSUREA COSTUS has been known for their medicinal and other uses for at least centuries and cultivated for close on a century (at least).  Both species were grown in Lahoul in the 1930s.  When I last visited Lahoul in the 2012, the Inula was been grown by the million in almost every field that was suitable, whilst the Saussurea widely but less commonly.  There is an enormous market for the Inula in the US for weight-loss pills.  Seems vast numbers of Lahoulis have cultivated two of the species for ages without any input by this 'project'.

As for the Carum - which if correctly identified is likely to be forma gracile of wild caraway. Dr R R Stewart found this plant to be very common in damp places in Ladakh and surrounding regions. I remember it abundant in wet ground in suitable places in Lahoul. Members of the University of Southampton Zangskar Expedition in 1981 found in frequent on open moist slopes amongst Salix and near streams  - so clearly is under no threat.  Its cultivation is meaningless and is of no consequence in terms of conservation of 'rare' plants, as it self-evidently is not rare!

2.    The 'project' also claims to have conducted 'initial' studies on conservation threats and strengths of local communities in sustainable development of Medicinal & Aromatic Plants.  Just how I ask?  And a farmers' cooperative which grew yes, you have it, INULA RACEMOSA and SAUSSUREA COSTUS (which others grow and sell perfectly well anyhow) and a mystery Aconitum.... There are claims of higher prices.  Is this true?

3.    A small hamlet in the borderlands of Western Tibet has helped (in what way we are not told) construct a water tank, though the Forest Department seems to have done most of the actual work.  The planting apparently is of Picrorhiza kurrooa, Angelica, Salix and Populus.  Well the last two are STANDARD plantings undertaken by locals all over the region for centuries (and more recently the Forest Department).  The Picrorhiza (another supposed 'critically endangered' species FALSELY listed under CITIES) is a FOOLISH thing to plant as it typically grows  on rocky but well-vegetated slopes in the Western Himalaya including the nearby Kulu Valley which are well-watered.  It will surely struggle and rapidly die out in an arid waste-land!  And how did material of this supposedly endangered species get to be planted in the first place?  As propagation by seed is unlikely, they presumably dug up the roots?  Criminal.....

As for the Angelica?  According to 'Flowers of the Himalaya', there is only one in the Himalaya: Angelica cyclocarpa, found from Central Nepal to S.E.Tibet.  I suspect this is a misidentification, as it would make no sense to attempt material all they way from the Eastern Himlaya and it would not survive in the borderlands of Western Tibet!  Let me try and guess what else they mean?  Presumably a member of the same family?  Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae).  There is Angelica glauca, which is often claimed to be 'rare and endangered' (interestingly, Stewart, in 'An Annotated Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of W.Pakistan and Kashmir' stated this to be common in Kashmir). In the literature, this has been recorded from the wet Kulu Valley which enjoys heavy monsoon rainfall.  In the mid-1980s I led two botanical tours in Lahoul in July (a peak time for flowering of mountain/alpine flowers) deliberately to take advantage of the rain-shadow; we spent a few days in Manali at some 2200m acclimatising - one year it rained continuously for 3 days.... So attempting to grow this Angelica is optimistic to say the least...  Koelz did not find A.glauca in Lahoul in the 1930s and it does not grow in Ladakh but might have more of a chance in the sheltered parts of Spiti or Kinnaur....

Conclusion - what has the project actually achieved 16 years later? (other than write reports, receive accolades and accept donations)

Was not the project SAVING RARE AND CRITICALLY ENDANGERED flora?  Yes, the Aconitum would be a native species but unless we know which one, I cannot judge its rarity (or not).

So, in return for a substantial amount of money, the project has helped grow TWO non-native species, already (and long) cultivated in the region in vast quantity.  ONE common species under no threat.  And one ACONITUM, which may well not be uncommon - if it is indeed ACONITUM VIOLACEUM.  What of Podophyllum hexandrum?  What of the other 30 species which were reported to be CRITICALLY ENDANGERED back in 2000? 

I would be asking for my money back.....  NOT securing MORE funding.

I did, some years ago, spot a wooden sign in a field at the bottom of the Rohtang Pass, Kulu Valley, Himachal Pradesh, which seemed to have something to do with this project- nothing special appeared to be growing there. Locals in Ladakh tell me of a few plastic chairs being provided in village and the odd portable toilet after the cloud-burst and severe flooding near Leh being provided by this project.  Quite what the purpose of the latter is when local people do not use such things; perhaps they are for visiting foreign aid workers and genteel visiting Indian ladies......