The eastern Himalayas—verdant, snowcapped and glacier clad—are renown for biological and cultural diversity and endemism. Tibetan people (Kham) have lived for millennia in this area, conserving, using, managing and enhancing this diversity. Diversity and endemism originated in the eastern Himalayas because of monsoonal rains, precipitous topography dissected by great rivers, and the interplay of major tropical and temperate floras. Tibetan culture flourished in this diversity and evolved conservation and management to protect it. Outstanding among this biological and cultural diversity, is an area known to Tibetans as Menri or Medicine Mountains. In the Medicine Mountains and second among the eight most sacred peaks in Tibet is Kawagebo, the highest peak in Yunnan (6,740m). Kawagebo is a Tibetan god accompanied by his consort Myincimu (the most beautiful peak, haloed by blowing snow curls) and other deities making up the chain of high, snowy peaks of the Medicine Mountains. The sacred geography of this area is profound, protecting and conserving the natural biodiversity among which the medicinal biodiversity gave rise to the Tibetan name of the range.

Ethnobotany, the study of plants and people, is employed to document the useful biodiversity of the Medicine Mountains and indigenous methods of conservation and management. Native plants, including foods, medicines, fibers, construction materials, and much more, are used by Tibetans in every aspect of their lives. From the mundane to the sacred, from subsistence to ceremony, plants are an integral part of Tibetan life. Conservation and management of plants and biodiversity are equally integrated in Tibetan culture. Sacred geography protects natural resources from large areas to individual trees; through sanctification, a mountainside or an ancient tree may be protected from grazing or logging. One Tibetan doctor of the Medicine Mountains explained that sacred areas protect populations of medicinal plants to assure reproduction and sustainable harvests. How can we reinforce these indigenous traditions in conservation?

Nature conservation can learn from and reinforce indigenous Tibetan practices at many levels from landscapes to plant populations. Tibetan land management is very relevant to conservation. Supporting indigenous plant management systems is crucial to the conservation of biodiversity in Tibetan Yunnan. Non-timber products are an integral part of Tibetan indigenous subsistence and culture. Tibetans have been successful stewards of this plant diversity for millennia. However, modern pressures brought on by transportation, markets, and interests in herbal medicines are threatening traditional land stewardship and, in the process, threatening the plants themselves. Tibetan Ethnobotany studies indigenous systems of Tibetan land management to reinforce conservation components and to empower the people to defend their resources against incursion and manage them for a sustainable future.

From the snow-capped peaks to the dry scrub vegetation along the vast rivers, there are many different vegetation types. Which of these plant communities are important to the Tibetan people for what uses? Which plant communities are threatened and need conservation prioritization? Other programs within The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have emphasized conservation of oak and coniferous forests for watershed management. To Tibetan society, these forests have provided both wood and non-timber products (NTPs) through natural forest management. These indigenous management systems are applicable to conservation of the prioritized forests. Additionally, other vegetation types, most notably Alpine Meadows, are even more diverse and useful to local Tibetan society. These lush, high mountain fields, replete with colorful alpine flowers, are the principle habitat for the majority of Tibetan medicinal plants. To date no program at Menri targets conservation of Alpine Meadows in spite of being over grazed and over collected by commercial medicinal collectors. The Tibetan Ethnobotany program suggests that TNC consider prioritizing Alpine Meadow conservation coupled with sustainable grazing and medicinal collecting.

Plant populations are severely threatened by non-sustainable harvest of wild plant populations for use and sale as medicines and also foods, firewood, resins, wood products, etc. In addition to conservation efforts focusing on habitats, the ethnobotany project addresses plant populations directly to avert this threat of unsustainable harvests of non-timber products (NTPs) in the Medicine Mountains. First, a list of threatened useful plants was drawn up by botanists familiar with the region. Second, Tibetan doctors were systematically interviewed to determine their priorities of plants both for use and conservation. Third, a shortlist of threatened useful plants were selected for further study. These plants are inventoried and measured yearly, seed production and germination are tested, and population ecology models will be constructed. From these models based on growth, death, and reproduction, sustainable harvests can be estimated. These estimates will be used in tandem with Tibetan doctors recommendations to help prescribe conservation measures and sustainable harvest. To assure the conservation of irreplaceable, useful, and valuable biodiversity, immediate action is essential.

Beyond the biology of threatened and endanger plants, to develop realistic conservation strategies it is equally important to understand the collection and sale of these non-timber products. For impoverished Tibetans—the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is the poorest area in Yunnan—these non-timber products are their major source of income. Sales of mushrooms, medicines, and ornamental plants to international markets represent a substantial proportion of Tibetan household income. We are monitoring local marketing of non-timber products for prices, sources, collectors, quantity and availability. Other organizations are monitoring world trade in threatened and endangered plants and animals, but little information is available from the local sources. As we learn repeatedly, there must be coordination between supply and demand sided conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals. For this reason, our Tibetan ethnobotany project includes this local market study and we coordinate with the monitoring of international markets.

Partnering with local Tibetans is key not only to ethnobotany but more importantly to conservation. Menri offers some tremendous local partners, especially Tibetan doctors. All Tibetan doctors are trained in indigenous plant biology, identification, and pharmacology; they recognize plants in their natural habitats, know how and where they grow, and realize modern threats to valuable medicinal resources. Tibetan doctors are trained plant experts who live in the villages, interact daily with local people by whom they are esteemed and revered. Tibetan doctors are the most powerful advocates and leaders for which conservation could hope. The Tibetan Ethnobotany project works closely with these people and seeks funding for their further training in Tibetan medicine and conservation.

Therefore, we are incorporating traditional local knowledge with modern Western scientific methods to develop conservation recommendations to protect Menri—Medicine Mountains. As part of the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, Missouri Botanical Garden (MO) is working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Deqin County on the Menri Ethnobotany Research and Conservation Program. Cooperation among institutions and with Tibetan doctors and local citizens has been overwhelmingly positive. Additional efforts in educating ethnobotanists, conservationists and local people in Menri on ethnobotany in general and this project in particular will increase the success of our research goals and conservation efforts. The success of our efforts in Menri, Medicine Mountains will ultimately depend on government and local people working together towards the long-term conservation management of non-timber products and biodiversity. In a larger context, these conservation goals for the Medicine Mountains are important because Menri falls within the global biodiversity hotspot of the eastern Himalayas (Hengduan Mountains) described as being the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem on earth! Conservation with local people, based on their local needs and uses of biodiversity, will set a standard for the entire area in its global conservation context.


Anderson, D., J. Salick, R.K. Moseley, and O. Xiaokun. 2005. Conserving the sacred medicine mountains: a vegetation analysis of Tibetan sacred sites in Northwest Yunnan. Biodiversity and Conservation 14:3065-3091.
Law, W. and J. Salick. 2005. Human Induced Dwarfing of Himalayan Snow Lotus (Saussurea laniceps (Asteraceae)). PNAS 102:10218-10220.
Salick, J., A. Amend, D. Anderson, K. Hoffmeister, B. Gunn, and Z. D. Fang. 2006. Tibetan Sacred Sites Conserve Old Growth Trees in the Eastern Himalayas. Biodiversity and Conservation. (In press)
Salick, J., Y. P. Yang, and A. Amend. 2005. Tibetan Land Use and Change in NW Yunnan. Economic Botany 59:312-325.
Salick, J., Y.P. Yang, and B.F. Gunn. 2005. In Situ Capacity Building: Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Conservation and Sustainable Development. Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis. (Available via link above, along left margin.)
Salick, J., D. Anderson, J. Woo, R. Sherman, C. Norbu, A. Na, and S. Dorje. 2004. Tibetan Ethnobotany and Gradient Analyses, Menri (Medicine Mountains), Eastern Himalayas. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment.

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