for National Geographic News
The beleaguered rain forests of Madagascar are home to thousands of plants found nowhere elseand perhaps new lifesaving drugs. Could the search for medicinal plants help keep the forests of this African island nation intact?
A team of scientists hope the answer is yes.
"Madagascar is poor according to human-economy criteria, yet extremely rich in unique and endemic biodiversity," said Patricia Wright, an anthropologist and conservation at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. "Is it possible to add to the human economy without depleting the biodiversity riches? We are trying our best to do this."
Wright serves as the executive director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and as a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration and Conservation Trust. She is joined on her latest project by Iwao Ojima, a chemist at Stony Brook University, and other international scientists.
The researchers are currently negotiating agreements with traditional healers, village elders, and university and government officials in Madagascar for a multiyear project to conduct drug-discovery research.
The project, known as the Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Program, is based in the tropical rain forests surrounding Ranomafana National Park. The 107,500-acre (43,500-hectare) preserve runs along the eastern edge of Madagascar's high plateau.
The park was created in 1991 after Wright discovered a new species of lemur in the region in 1986.
The park is protected today. But outside its boundaries hundreds of acres of rain forest are burned and destroyed each year to make room for rice farming and corn farming. In the process, habitat for many diverse plant and animal species is lost. The annual net gain to farmers is equivalent to several hundred U.S. dollars in income.
"It doesn't make economic sense," Wright said. "Before these priceless species go extinct, we are hoping to find active compounds in some of the botanicals, which may be used to treat human diseases."
Like their Amazonian counterparts, traditional Madagascan healers have a generations-deep knowledge of how the leaves, bark, sap, and berries of local rain forest plants can be used to cure ills ranging from stomach aches and high fevers to coughs and malaria.
"Our strategy is to get all the information from those traditional healers and then look at [it] from a very modern-science point of view," said Ojima, the founding director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery at Stony Brook University.
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