Many commercially available pharmaceuticals are derived from wild plants and animals, as are traditional medicines – the primary medicines for an estimated 80% of the world’s people.
Around one in four of all prescription drugs dispensed by western pharmacists is likely to contain ingredients derived from plants.
For example, the bark of the African plum tree (Prunus africana) is used to treat prostrate cancer; a compound from a tropical legume (Mucuna deeringiana) is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease; and the decongestant ephedrine is derived from a Chinese shrub (Ephedra sinica).
Plants are equally important for traditional and herbal medicines. In China alone, traditional medicine is largely based on around 5,000 plants which are used for treating 40% of urban patients and 90% of rural patients.
Globally, up to 28% of all plant species may have been used medically.
This makes wild plants and animals extremely important for human health. It also makes them a significant source of revenue: global sales of pharmaceuticals based on materials of natural origin are worth an estimated US$75 billion a year.
A local doctor, from Murungaru, Kenya, is seen packing his herbal medicines.
This value – and the potential value of other species that may one day become important in the development of medicines to fight diseases – provides a clear incentive to protect biodiversity. This is particularly the case given that many wild medicinal species are threatened by over-harvesting.
Protecting traditional knowledge such as traditional remedies and cures is also important for maintaining the health of many communities in poor countries where medicinal plants often form the sole basis of healthcare and preventative medicine.
Collection of wild medicinal species can also be an important source of income in developing countries.
For example, 70% of medicinal plants on the Vietnamese market originate in the uplands and are a key money-making option for poor rural women. Collection continues in many protected areas through agreement with park authorities and increasingly through co-management agreements: for example collection of medicinal plants is an important activity in Nepal’s Shey-Phoksundo National Park.