Saving What Remains


July 22, 2007


The rainforest may someday provide the cure for AIDS, pancreatic cancer, antibiotic-resistant staph infections, lassa fever, or Alzheimer's disease, if given the chance to do so. Unfortunately, as primary forest cover is diminished by 1-2 percent every year, it is projected that 20-25 percent of the world's plant species will be extinct by the year 2015. Perhaps in some remote Andean valley, slated for destruction today, lives a rare orchid which has developed an anti-viral chemical that kills HIV, halts cancer, or slows aging. In addition, the shamans who provide much of the insight into identifying these plants and their uses, are disappearing at an even faster rate as their villages seek a more Western lifestyle. These shamans are generally elders and when they die, their unique knowledge of traditional uses of rainforest plants will die with them.

Some organizations are trying to prevent the loss of medicinal knowledge when Indigenous elders die. The Terra Nova Rainforest Reserve is the first ethnomedicinal forest reserve designed to ensure that medicinal plants will be available for local use. The reserve encourages the use of such plants and has also implemented a program teaching youths about uses of medicinal plants so this knowledge will not die, but be passed on to future generations and researchers.

Plant-derived medications. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

National botanical gardens, like those of Missouri and New York, are playing an important role in propagating medicinal plants that are either threatened in the wild or so rare that collection cannot satisfy demand. Several gardens have propagated such medicinal plants and freely distributed seedlings to local communities who can integrate them into their traditional food crops. The plants can provide substantially more cash than many traditional crops like bananas, coffee, and cocoa.

Animals as an inspiration for drugs

Animals also provide compounds useful to humans as medicinal drugs. Both leeches and vampire bats have powerful anticoagulants they use in feeding on their prey. From the saliva of leeches comes hirudin, which is now used to dissolve blood clots in humans. The vampire bat has a compound in its saliva that can be used to prevent heart attacks. The slimy secretions of frogs are used to treat infections, mental disorders, and even HIV, while scientists hope that one day blood from the ubiquitous (in the western U.S.) western fence lizard (more popularly known as the "blue-belly") will help prevent or cure Lyme disease. ABT-594 is an experimental painkiller derived from the skin secretions of Epipedobates tricolor, a colorful poison arrow frog, and crocodile blood is being examined for its anti-HIV properties.

Rainforest herbal medicines in Ghana. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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