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Interview: China's mega biodiversity could hold cures to cancer, malaria: UN expert

by Lyndal Rowlands

UNITED NATIONS, March 4 (Xinhua) -- China's mega biodiversity could hold the cures to diseases like cancer and malaria, Nik Sekhran, director for sustainable development at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), told Xinhua in a recent interview.

"In 2015, China got its first Nobel laureate in medicine and that was an exciting moment," said Sekhran. "Tu Youyou shared a prize for artemisinin (an antimalarial drug) from (the plant) Artemesia."

In December, the 84-year-old Chinese pharmacologist received her 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Together with her team, Tu managed to extract, through trial and error, a substance from Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, that proved effective in reducing mortality rates for patients suffering from malaria.

China's mega diversity means that it could hold many plants with undiscovered medicinal properties, said Sekhran. "(China) is a huge storehouse of potential pharmacopeia products which are useful for medical application."

"China happens to be a global biodiversity hotspot, (it) is actually considered to be a mega diversity country. It is one of the countries in the world with the highest biodiversity," said Sekhran.

The UNDP has been working with China to help ensure that the benefits from bio-prospecting discoveries are shared with China, said Sekhran.

"Some enormous 5 billion (U.S.) dollars of plant materials for medicinal and other aromatic purposes are exported from China annually -- 1.5 billion tons," he said, adding that it is not particularly well known that China's biological resources are being exploited globally, placing them at risk.

"The world is also consuming biodiversity unique to China in ways that are not sustainable, it's a global problem," he said.

For example, he said, plants like the gingko biloba tree and ginseng are at risk from unsustainable harvesting.

"Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree, it is endemic to China, and it is being unsustainably utilized and it is being sold overseas," he said.

China's wildlife is also of huge importance to the world, Sekhran said, adding that China's giant pandas are well known, but China is also home to snow leopards and even has its own elephant populations.

China's elephants, which live in the Mekong river biodiversity hotspot, have been brought "back from the brink" of extinction, he said.

While a protected area at the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang (also known as the Mekong) rivers -- three times the size of Switzerland -- is helping to preserve biodiversity for future generations.

"You need to protect those headwaters if you are concerned about your Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong river health, so we've been doing that now because if you leave it, you lose your opportunities to protect it because it gets degraded beyond recovery," he said.

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