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[BEIJING] China's booming traditional medicine industry is threatening biodiversity, according to scientists.

Chen Shilin, deputy director of the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, last week described drug development as a "major factor" threatening the extinction of Chinese species.

Speaking at a seminar on traditional medicine in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, Chen said between 60 and 70 per cent of China's 3,000 threatened plant species are used in traditional medicine.

Of these, he added, 169 are protected species, meaning trade in them is restricted under Chinese law.

Qin Minjian, a professor of traditional medicine at the China Pharmaceutical University, says that as China's population has become more health-conscious, people are turning more and more to traditional medicine.

Demand for such medicines has grown by 300 per cent in the past decade. Last year, the sector's economic value grew by 15 per cent to 94.9 billion yuan (US$11.5 billion). Overseas demand for Chinese medicine has also risen. In 2003, China exported US$712 million worth of herbal remedies, a six per cent increase over the previous year's exports.

But the boost in demand has promoted environmental degradation. For example, large swathes of yew trees have been cut down because they are the raw material for an alcoholic beverage used as a cancer preventive medicine.

Qin told SciDev.Net that many valuable plants are found only in fragile habitats. What's more, says Qin, some of the plants are ecologically important to many other species and their disappearance would increase the risk to the rest.

According to Qin, this threat to China's biodiversity has been compounded by multinational drug companies, which have increased investment in research on potential drugs from Chinese plants in recent years.

Measures to make traditional medicine sustainable, says Qin, include cultivating plants used in herbal remedies, restricting the exploitation of valuable species with potential for drug development, and identifying alternatives to medicines based on endangered species.

In recent years, China has successfully cultivated or farmed 400 species used to make up traditional medicines. Half of these species account for more than 60 per cent of all natural ingredients used in traditional medicine.

But Xiao Peigen, a retired professor of traditional Chinese medicine and former director of the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, says current efforts are inadequate.

Comprehensive databases on wild herbal plants and animals should be established to assist regulation of species exploitation, and anyone collecting too much of any wild plant species should be severely punished, Xiao told last week's seminar.

Institute of Medicinal Plant Development

Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (in Chinese)

China Pharmaceutical University (in Chinese)