Porous borders: a boon for goons, bane for the law

To contain illegal trades in the northern and southern ends of the country is a most challenging task for Bhutanese law enforcement authorities. As a result, illegal trading of medicinal plants is up and on the rise.

Trans-boundary illegal collection of medicinal plants is rampant in Bhutan although enforcement officials are stationed at many strategic points. Illegal exploitation of resources by people from across the border according to the officials may compromise sustainability of Bhutan’s medicinal plants.

Such illegal collections are also often untraceable due to which authorities don’t have any concrete data on the quantity of the illegal exports.

Lyonpo (Dr.) Pema Gyamtsho said that Bhutan has always faced difficulties in legality, sustainability and traceability of medical plants in the country. “Due to porous borders both in north and south, much of it is traded not in very legal manner.” This Lyonpo said was because of the lucrative market it has in the international market.

In the north, it is mostly the Ophiocordyceps (Chinese caterpillar) which are being smuggled through the unguarded and unmanned part of the border while similarly in the south, Pipla, Star Anis (Illicium) and Fritillaria delavayi are few among many that are illegally ferried across the border.

This is also evident from the recent report of Revenue and Custom official seizing sacks of semi-dried Pipla from a driver of Indian origin.

Collectors from within the country also exert pressure on the resources sustainability.  “Poor collection is also happening rampantly,” said Lyonpo  (Dr.) Pema Gyamtsho. “The method of collection is very destructive that in many cases there is no regard for the revival and regeneration of the medicinal plant species.” This is happening both at the alpine areas in the north as well as sub-tropical zone in the south.

For instance, experts shared at the CITES regional workshop last Thursday, that it takes approximately, 5000 pieces of Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Chinese caterpillar) to make one kilogram. So, chances of getting over exploited if not managed properly cannot be overruled.

In particular to Chinese caterpillar, many mechanisms are in place to check over-exploitation both natural and man-made. The harsh and ruthless climatic condition in Cordyceps growing areas is a kind of a favorable condition for sustenance of the worms. Such inclement weather limits quantity of the worms collected. “The ‘bub’ grows within the thickets of the alpine bushes and it really takes experience to locate one. Hunting for 12 hours, many can gather only few pieces,” said an official.

Although officials said that it is difficult to put legal limitations, mechanisms such as restriction of collection time for only one month (From 15 May to 15 June) are imposed. During this period, enforcement officials sternly monitor the collection methods. The numbers of collectors are also kept at minimum through provision of limited collection permits from the forest and park services department.

Bhutan is home to more than 300 species of medicinal plants.

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