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Let the taxus go WILD!

Taxus trees are locally believed to have diverse healing properties, whilst, the researchers suggest that it shouldn’t be consumed without any scientific basis. However, it is essential to preserve such indigenous knowledge, and more importantly, to protect these trees in their wild habitat.

Shikha Acharya

“Taxus must be a magical tree. It heals diseases that can’t be cured even by western medicines,” says Ram Prasad Timalsina, who claims to be the first person to startup taxus commercial farm in Kavrepalanchowk district of central Nepal. “Believe me, I have been using it as remedies for years and not even a single time has it failed me,” he adds.
Taxus, lauth salla in Nepali, is an integral part of traditional healing system in the local communities of Kavre.

People have their own specific beliefs concerning their medicinal use. They believe that it cures wounds and rashes. “Once a woman in my village suffered from a disease where her legs turned black, referred as kalo daaj (a skin discoloration affecting a specific part of the body), and sought help from me. As its remedy, I gave her a mixed paste of taxus branches and some medicinal herbs, and asked her to apply it daily on her affected skin. The disease was completely cured in a month or two.” says Timalsina.

People are also using taxus to treat women with uterine prolapse. Firstly, they boil taxus leaves in water, and after letting it cool down for a while, pour the lukewarm mixture into a wide bucket. The woman is then asked to dip herself partially into it for some hours as a healing process. Additionally, they also believe that consumption of taxus helps in blood purification.

They use a small amount of dry powder of its leaves in an herbal tea along with tulsi (holy basil) and tejpat (Cinnamomum tamala). Some of them have an absolute love for such type of tea. They claim that the respiratory diseases like asthma are cured by it. Even though such practices of consuming taxus are common locally, researchers strongly recommend that one shouldn’t consume it in raw forms. Ingesting their parts in a high amount can kill a person, given the presence of toxic chemical content within them.

Taxus are used locally for healing purposes. Photo : Greenhood Nepal

Besides medicines, they are used as timbers because of their high strength. People assert that some very old stupas and monuments were built with the woods of taxus. They have also been a remarkable nursery business venture. The taxus seedlings are currently being sold for NPR 40 (0.35 USD) per plant and dried leaves for NPR 160 (1.4 USD) per kilogram, however these prices keep changing.

Taxus are cancer curing trees that are in high demand in the international market. Their leaves contain a chemical known as 10-DAB III which is processed to obtain Paclitaxel, a medicine against cancer. Out of the thirteen species found worldwide, Nepal hosts three species of taxus: Taxus wallichiana, Taxus contorta and Taxus mairei. However, they all are listed under Appendix II in The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that if their trade is not controlled soon they have a high risk of being extinct from the wild.

But, the question is why despite all these commercial cultivation are they under such a high risk? Well, farming does play an important role in preserving the species, however, the real problem still persists in wild trees conservation. Taxus in forests are rapidly exploited, holding true the famous concept of all time “the tragedy of the commons”.

There are around two thousand Taxus mairei left in the wild of Nepal; an estimation based on a recent survey by Greenhood Nepal. Moreover, their collection guidelines hasn’t been formulated till now. Greenhood Nepal has recently drafted a sustainable harvesting guidelines for taxus species through a series of discussion programs with local harvesters and national level stakeholders. It is on its way to take a final shape, and hopefully, will play a significant role to preserve wild taxus.

It is quite sad to think about how we have failed in conserving them in their natural habitat whilst making the most of the services they have provided to us. Isn’t it time we let these species thrive on their own and protect them against their excessive exploitation? We can see that they have given people like Mr. Timalsina, a way of earning a livelihood. It has been interlinked with our local communities in an inseparable way. It is high time we all return the favor back to these species.

The author is a forestry graduate.

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