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Traditional Medical Practices and Medicines of Tribals of Car Nicobar

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands possesses a rich biodiversity under a typical tropical environment.    The aboriginal Nicobarese tribes of the Car Nicobar Island have been using the traditional healing techniques; like using indigenous medicinal plants for the treatment of various diseases since ages.  This includes their traditional beliefs and practices regarding health and sickness, magico-religious treatments, home remedies and plant folk medicine.  

Although the Tsunami has caused near total destruction of the medicinal infrastructure, many known and unknown rare species of medical plants and their vast knowledge of ethnomedicine are still alive within the tribe. Unfortunately due to their reclusive lifestyle, the knowledge is limited to few traditional healers and is not documented.  The tribe can actually make a meaningful contribution by cultivating the promising herbs in larger scale, both for to improve their economic conditions as well as for the betterment of the society in large.

Traditional Medicine of Car Nicobar Islands

Local medical practices and self-treatment

 The tribals take their own locally prepared medical concoctions for common ailments like cough, cold, fever, cuts, burns, stomach ache and body pain.  The method of treatment generally varies from raw extract to decoction, of the herbs;  for skin disease, generally the plant part juice is applied. Fractured bones and sprains are treated by making a paste of the plant part either natural or mixed with egg or pig fat and then applied. In some cases, various combinations of plant parts are also used.  There are more than 40 species of potential medicinal plants which are used by the aboriginals and by the people of diverse ethnic groups.

Most of these medicines made by the tribes are a combination of plants. The duration of treatment is different, and isn't the same for all diseases.  Some typical traditional medicines and health practices are: 

For treating cough and fever, the leaf and stem of Uiyaw (Amomum aculeatum Roxb) is tied around the chest and its juice is applied on other wounds for healing purposes.

The leaves of Myristica andamanica is used to help stop bleeding and as a garland when one is sick.

The leaves, wrapped around the body to help get relief from pain, are called intoto (piper betle L.) (Piperceae).

The plant of Urubethe (trichosanthes bracteata (Lamk) Voigt (Cucurbitaceous) is wrapped around the throat  to cure throat infection.

For dental care, tooth sticks, belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family (3 species), are used by the tribals since time immemorial and found effective in keeping their teeth and gums healthy

Use of metal in treatments is also popular.  Silver wires are tied around parts of the body to provide relief from various types of aches - head ache, arm ache or leg ache.

The magico-religious treatments are also very common for those diseases where they felt that supernatural causes are responsible.

Rare Medicinal plants in the Island

Out of 2500 angiospermic species distributed among the the aboriginals, namely, Nicobarese, Sentinels, Shompen, Ongese and Jarawas and Great Andamanese, the aboriginals use 52 species as medicaments.  Of the 156 plants reported to have medicinal properties, 58 are found to be multipurpose ones, used for more than one ailment. The most promising medicinal plants having multipurpose function are Calotropis gigantea, Cyanodon dactylon, Centalla asiatica, Jatropha gossipifolia, Tamarindus indica, etc. A maximum number of these plants are available for gastrointestinal problems, skin infection, fever, chest and joint pain.

The family consisting of largest number of endemic species is Rubiaceae with 41 species followed by Euphorbiaceae and Orchidaceae with 34 and 24 taxa, respectively. Ixora of Rubiaceae is the largest genus with 12 species endemic to the islands. Out of 301 taxa, 251 are species, 7 are subspecies and 43 are varieties.   Further, 62 species, 2 subspecies and 9 varieties are found to be endemic to both Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Documenting the indigenous knowledge

The precious knowledge of the use of many plants in healthcare system of  tribals need to be protected and documented. This documented information may help in carrying out detailed pharmacological studies for isolation, purification and characterization of bioactive compounds and in discovery of new drugs for large-scale utilization. Preliminary screening of bioactive compounds from a few medicinal plants of these islands prospects a great potential in drug development. Extensive research work in this endeavor is expected to benefit, if sustainable efforts are mounted in systematic way.

Many researchers and practitioners have already made serious attempts to understand the science behind this indigenous knowledge by promoting pharmaco-chemical studies of the species.  Although some of these species are known in the medical world, many still remain unknown.  The Central Agricultural Research Institute, Botanical Survey of India and Society of A & N Ecology (SANE) have increased efforts to compile, collect and collate information about medicinal plants available in these islands. Several studies were conducted and medicinal plants of these islands were documented.

The medicinal plants commonly used by the locals and tribes, those found in the mangrove areas, the plants exclusively used by tribals and medicinal plant suited for homestead farming  have been identified.

ICMR's Regional Medical Research Centre (RMRC) is preparing a unique Community Biodiversity Register (CBDR) for the tribals of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  that will document their traditional healing practices, use of medicinal plants, healing record, mode of preparation of plants' parts and number of patients treated.

Scientists have travelled to 11 of the 15 villages of the Car Nicobar Island, inhabited by the ancient Nicobarese tribe, documenting the use of 124 medicinal plants that are being prescribed to cure 34 different diseases. They have also interviewed 42 Traditional Knowledge Persons (TKP)/folk healers for the project. 
RMRC director Dr. Palaru Vijayachari said, "Traditional treasures of the tribal people, like their healing techniques, need to be protected. We are documenting them so that patents can be applied for such practices. We will be documenting all medicinal plants among all accessible tribes. Scientific explanation of the use of the plant will accompany it."

Digital database for posterity

A digital database on plant resources of these islands indicate over 400 plant species, herbs, shrubs, trees, climbers, epiphytes and lithophytes under different families with medicinal values. The indigenous tribes of the islands have been using these natural products for their medicinal properties.
Scientists are also collecting the plants and their parts used for treating ailments, and have also developed an herbal garden where some of these species are being studied.

Patenting of the traditional Folk-medicine

The scientists plan to collect all information, scientifically validate them and then help patent them on the name of the tribal healers.  According to the Indian Patent Act, no traditional knowledge can be patented by anybody but the exclusive knowledge of the tribal/folk healers must be ascribed to them and registered in their name so that nobody can misuse that knowledge for commercial purposes without their prior permission and sharing its benefits with them.

Thus, if any new product is developed based on that knowledge and any form of Intellectual Property Right (IPR) is taken for that, the folk/tribal healers must be included as the innovators and get due share of benefits as its co-patentees. CBDR will have a photo of the TKP and his personal details. Also, it would include the diseases being treated, local names of plants, combination of plants used and mode of preparation.

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