Written by Sonia Dhanda
2022 marks the nineteenth World Wildlife Conference. Nations from all over the world will meet to enhance the regulation of wildlife trade, defined as the transaction of wild plant and animal resources by humans. Global biodiversity policies exist to protect nature, one such policy is the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), and many medicinal plants are protected by CITES. Medicinal plants are often sustainably harvested from the wild, however, many species are at threat from overexploitation. The collection and trade of wild plants is an important natural resource or source of income for millions of people making this a vital issue for both people and plants.
What is the World Wildlife Conference?
CITES is a global wildlife policy agreement, created in 1975, set up to address the extinction crisis by facilitating the international trade of plants and animals through a permitting system and regulations.
The convention aims to ensure the trade of wild species is non-detrimental to their wild populations by advocating for a conservation through sustainable use approach. There are around 38,700 species, 5,950 species of animals, and 32,800 species of plants, protected by CITES. Plants and their products are regulated in international trade for uses such as health care, building materials, ornamental use, furniture, food, and cosmetics.
CITES has 184 countries and states that collectively meet to review the progress of species conservation, amend CITES regulations, and review the problems and success of implementing the legislation. A CITES COP is usually held every 3 years and is a critical meeting for wildlife conservation.
The 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP19) is taking place in Panama City, Panama in November 2022.
CITES and medicinal plants
CITES regulates at least 1,280 species of medicinal and aromatic plants (1). There is a CITES working programme on medicinal and aromatic plants, along with proposals to add medicinal plants to CITES regulations. There has been a call to engage with stakeholders and consumers in the medicinal and aromatic plant industry. The actions are to enhance awareness of CITES regulations and strengthen the legal trade of medicinal plants. There are also actions to evaluate the scientific data required to facilitate sustainable trade and understand the trade value chains of medicinal plant species.
Signatories to the convention are required to make sustainability assessments when exporting CITES plants to ensure wild populations are not at threat from overharvesting. The sustainability finding is known as a Non-Detriment Finding and CITES signatories have guidance in place to conduct these assessments. The type of data analysed includes the taxonomy, conservation status, the source, trade volumes, threats to the species, evaluating available harvesting or management plans for the species, and understanding the regeneration and ecology of the species. The CITES signatories have been discussing frankincense (Boswellia) species in detail and gathering information on its biology and trade. There are concerns that many species of Boswellia are at threat and issues of identification and lookalike species such as myrrh (Commiphora) species. The dialogues suggest further consultations are required but the harvesting and trade of this genus likely meet the criteria to be listed on CITES, however, this has not been proposed for this year’s World Wildlife Conference.
How is a species listed on CITES?
CITES is known as a science-based convention. There are criteria for listing species on CITES and species must meet certain biological and trade criteria. This year, a proposal for golden root or roseroot (Rhodiola spp.) to be regulated on CITES has been submitted by China, the EU, Ukraine, the UK, and the USA. Rhodiola is native to the Subarctic and Subalpine Northern Hemisphere, the taxonomy of the genus is unresolved, however, 69 accepted species have been recorded on the scientific database called the World Checklist of Vascular Plants (2). Rhodiola rosea is valued in ornamental trade and gardens however it is being proposed for CITES regulations because of the medicinal plant trade. Rhodiola rosea has a long history of medicinal use for health benefits related to stress-related fatigue and physical and mental performance enhancement (3).
For a species to be regulated on CITES, one or more countries may put forward a CITES species listing proposal. The species must be endemic to some of the countries who put forward the proposal with details outlining the taxonomy of the species, distribution, habitat, biological characteristics, morphological characteristics, ecological role, population size and trends, its utilisation, parts or products in trade, legal and illegal trade, management, monitoring measures and more. The proposal should be consulted with any country which has this as a native species The signatories of CITES review the proposal, and a two-thirds majority vote is required to accept a proposal.
CITES advocates for regulating the part or product in trade, which is exported from the main trade countries, often only parts of the trade chain are regulated. This part of the legislation is called the annotation. The Rhodiola proposal has suggested listing the genus to regulate all parts and derivatives except seeds and pollen and finished products packaged and ready for the retail trade. This proposal intends to regulate Rhodiola rhizomes from the main countries of harvesting.
Rhodiola conservation, harvesting and trade
Rhodiola is a plant that has boomed in popularity in recent years, perhaps because of its stress supporting properties. We will use it here as an example of a plant regulated under CITES. Medicinal use of Rhodiola is globally documented in North America, Europe, and Central and East Asia evidenced through pharmacopeia’s, ethnobotanical studies and folk medicine references (4). The main exporters of R. rosea are Russia for raw plant material and China for Rhodiola products, mainly derived from R. crenulata. (5). In China, there is a high diversity of Rhodiola species and 21 species of Rhodiola are used (6). Rhodiola rosea occurs naturally in 29 countries. Globally, demand for Rhodiola rosea and its compound salidroside has led to some wild populations becoming threatened (7). The conservation status of the species varies from IUCN Red List categories of Critically Endangered to Least Concern indicating harvesting threats are greater in populations in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, China, Czechia, Mongolia and Russia (6). In several countries, an IUCN Red List or equivalent assessment has not been undertaken due to resources or a lack of data on wild populations.
Rhodiola has been cultivated in various countries, however, it takes between 5 – 7 years for the rootstock to reach the desired maturation for harvesting (6). Cultivation is increasing but it is not fulfilling the global demand and so wild populations are continuously being harvested. There are also concerns about the adulteration of products on the market. Identification of dried rhizomes of Rhodiola is challenging at a species level and can be even more difficult for consumers buying processed products. An authentication study of Rhodiola rosea products in the UK found that 50% of the supplements tested contained different species of Rhodiola (8). Similar evidence presented in the species proposal has led to the species listing becoming a genus listing proposal as the harvesting and trade of Rhodiola species appears to be indiscriminate.
CITES COP19 will take place in November 2022. If the species proposals are successful, they enter into force three months after the meeting, in this case by the end of February 2023. Researchers have estimated there are at least 30,000 medicinal and aromatic plant species, and 60-90% of these plant species in trade are wild collected (9). Understanding the use, trade and supply and regeneration of medicinal plants are areas in the herbal plant industry that intersect with this global wildlife trade policy. There is value in herbalists, suppliers, and users of herbal plants to understand and engage with CITES as well as joining efforts and resources for medicinal plant conservation and ensuring these plants are accessible in the future.
- Allkin R., Patmore K, Black N, Booker A, Canteiro C, Dauncery E, Edwards S, Giovanni P, Howes M-J, Hudson A, Irving I, Leon C, Williken W, Nic Lughadha E, Schippmann U, & Simmonds M. (2017). Medicinal Plants: current resource and future potential. In: State of the Worlds Plants Report, Royal Botanic Gardens. 22–29. https://stateoftheworldsplants.org/
- POWO (2022). Plants of the World Online. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/ Retrieved 24 August 2022.
- Herbal Reality. 2022. Rhodiola Rosea. Published on the Internet; https://www.herbalreality.com/herb/rhodiola/. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
- Cuerrier, A., Tendland, Y., Rapinski, M., 2014. Ethnobotany and Conservation of Rhodiola Species. In: Cuerrier, A., Ampong- Nyarko, K. (Eds.), Rhodiola Rosea. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.
- Brinckmann, J.A., Cunningham, A.B. and Harter, D.E., 2021. Running out of time to smell the roseroots: Reviewing threats and trade in wild Rhodiola rosea L. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 269, p.113710.