With many medicinal plants, herbs and shrubs used in Indian wellness system Ayurveda on the verge of extinction, Kerala has mooted the idea of sending their seeds to a "Seed Vault" in South Korea, which is strong enough to withstand a tsunami or a quake.
A team of botanists from Korea National Arboretum was in the state recently to discuss and strike a deal with the government, but a final decision on the proposal will require the nod of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
Authorities from the Seed Vault met Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, with a proposal that the state could send seeds of some rare and endangered tropical medicinal plants for preservation.
According to Dr Latha P G, Director of Kerala-based Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botantic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) at nearby Palode, the state government is quite enthusiastic about the idea.
"The Chief Minister has agreed to the proposal.
Chennai based National Bio-diversity Authority (NBA) has to give the final approval," Dr Latha told PTI.
Built in a mountainous cave, the vault can withstand the onslaughts of any natural calamity, including a tsunami, earthquake and even a blast.
The seeds stored there will remain as the raw material for plant breeding and biological research in the event of a global disaster.
"There is definitely a threat to medicinal plants because of over-exploitation for Ayurvedic and other healing systems. Also, urban encroachments have resulted in shrinkage of the cultivation base of herbal plants.In this scenario, it is vital to preserve them as the mainstay of Kerala's traditional wellness system," Dr Laltha said.
As many as 400 medicinal and herbal plants in India are on the verge of extinction, as per the Red Data list of International Union for Conservation of Nature, she said.
The Botanical Survey of India (BSI), which recently prioritised 359 wild medicinal plant varieties and conducted an appraisal across the country to ascertain their health, has classified 335 of them as endangered and vulnerable due to civilisational encroachments.
"We are losing plants rapidly. Plants like adhathoda beddomei (used in cough syrups), helminthostachys zeylanica (a fern used in many herbal formulations) and sidarhombifolia (a drug extracted from it given to expectant mothers) have become endangered," Dr Latha said.
Similarly, a plant that provides 'arogyapacha,' a vital ingredient in anti-fatigue and anti-stress Jeevani drug, is now scarce.
With Kerala identifying medical tourism as an area of great potential, it's important to enforce quality standards in medicines and treatment. This also requires that the medicines are made of the plants and herbs as prescribed by classical texts, said Dr P K Asok, Principal, Government Ayurveda College.
Tourism Secretary Suman Billa says "herbs will have to be cultivated under controlled condition of production to address this problem.The challenge is also how to maintain the quality of medicines.Medicine-making involves getting fresh and right ingredients and maintaining right kind of formulations."
"We have been able to save the Arogyapacha-producing plant from extinction through tissue culture. We have sent a proposal to Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) for its commercial production by involving tribals, the original custodians of this plant," Latha said.
Another method is cryo-preservation where the endangered species are kept in extremely cold conditions (liquid nitrogen) for their preservation for years together.
The Institute has developed protocols for 75 plants through tissue culture and established a large living collection of rare and threatened plants (550 species) and medicinal, aromatic and spice plants (1500 species),she said.
"Kerala has always attached importance to its plants.There is a bio-diversity register in each panchayat for every single plant."
Private institutions like the famous Arya Vaidya Sala in Kottakkal have also started preservation projects by conducting a survey of the herbal plants.
According to market-analysts, despite difficulties in getting medicinal plants in required quality and quantity, Auryveda based medical tourism is on an upswing in Kerala.
Though there are farmers willing to set aside part of their land to cultivate medicinal plants and herbs, they can sustain this only when there is a guarantee they get good price for their labour without being exploited by middlemen, they said.