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Schisandra and the Panda: Sustainable Management and Trade of Schisandra spenanthera in China


A recent study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology assessed the impacts of a research program on the sustainable management and trade of wild-harvested southern schisandra (Schisandra sphenanthera, Schisandraceae) fruit in China a decade after the progam’s inception.1 The five-year European Union-China Biodiversity Programme (ECBP) ran from 2007-2011 and was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and World Wide Fund for Nature-China (WWF-China).

The fruit of southern schisandra and northern schisandra (S. chinensis) are used interchangeably in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as an astringent active ingredient2 for the treatment of a variety of conditions, including nocturnal emission, urinary incontinence, chronic diarrhea, palpitations, insomnia, chronic cough, and shortness of breath. Southern schisandra is used in the traditional medicine practices of at least four Chinese ethnic groups and in TCM as indicated in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia.3

The distribution of southern schisandra in mountainous forests overlaps with the habitat of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), China’s iconic, vulnerable, bamboo-eating bear, both inside and outside of protected areas. The diet of the giant panda is composed almost exclusively of different plant parts of more than 60 species of bamboo in the Poaceae family.4 Efforts to prevent the giant panda’s extinction have resulted in stabilization of its population and increases in some parts of its range, but the region where giant pandas live is populated by humans, and panda corridors are threatened with development. Climate change is also expected to alter pandas’ habitat. Climate change models predict a reduction of more than one-third of giant pandas’ bamboo habitat over the next 80 years, with consequent population declines if this occurs.5,6 The giant panda is no longer listed internationally as endangered but remains vulnerable as determined by the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria.7 Average income in the 41 counties in which pandas reside lags behind that of other parts of Sichuan province, where the highest density of wild pandas is found in Pingwu county. Improving rural incomes may help encourage conservation.

Traditional wild-harvesting and sun-drying of schisandra fruit by families in rural villages provides income for villagers and a supply of this much-used TCM herb, but these practices do not always result in a high-quality product and often cause ecosystem and habitat damage. Large schisandra vines twining up host trees may be pulled down with no fruits left for regeneration, and tree branches are sometimes torn off. Inferior immature fruits may be picked, scalded, and sun-dried to resemble mature berries.

A plan to improve schisandra harvesting practices arose in 2007 in an initial project of the ECBP that aimed to implement a strategic model of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development with a focus on collection within the giant panda habitat. A baseline survey by the ECBP resulted in the selection of southern schisandra as the first medicinal product to be tried in the new conservation model.

A proof-of-concept project was conducted in 2008 in a small village in Pingwu county in Sichuan province. With the participation of local wild harvesters and village and county officials, clear, accepted, and enforceable boundaries were established and marked for community management; wild harvesters received information on sustainable yields and practices; and the status of the resource at each management area was assessed. From this process, rules for resource management were developed, and the Pingwu Shuijing TCM Cooperative (PSTCMC), a community-based initiative focused on sustainable harvesting, resource management, and trade of plants used in TCM, was established. By 2016, the PSTCMC included 22 schisandra-harvesting villages with 262 households registered as harvesters, including 122 women. Improvements in processes, from sustainable harvesting methods to shade-drying, have brought increased production and income without depleting plant supplies.

Since the emergence of organic certification in the 1970s, the “moral economy” has grown to encompass a range of other certification standards, including fair trade and wildlife-friendly eco-labels. Businesses and producers, the 2018 article notes, must be willing to adopt new methods and standards, at all levels and significant cost, to achieve environmentally friendly goals.

Stakeholder involvement in developing verifiable, meaningful certification standards and processes is vital. Before their involvement in the initiative for panda-friendly southern schisandra, Traditional Medicinals (TM; Rohnert Park, California) initially had used only northern schisandra in its product and had supported a separate Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) project (2004-2007) to develop “tiger [Panthera tigris]-friendly certified” schisandra efforts in the Russian Far East. While the WCS project did not succeed in the end, TM was invited to participate in the ECBP project (2007-2011). After determining feasibility, TM decided to reformulate its product using sustainably harvested “panda-friendly” southern schisandra, if pharmacopeial quality and producer reliability could be established. Because the herb is used as an extract, TM invited a Chinese extraction house, Draco/Shanghai Tian Yuan Botanicals Products Company (Shanghai, China), into the project in order to prepare the dry aqueous schisandra extract.

Guidelines for the sustainable wild collection of schisandra were developed and tested for the 2009 harvest and subsequently revised based on that experience. The species-specific harvesting and trading guidelines were based, in part, on the principles and criteria of the FairWild Standard8,9 and the US Department of Agriculture National Organic Program wild-crop harvesting practice standard.10 The PSTCMC was inspected by the Institute for Market Ecology (now Ecocert IMO; Kreuzlingen, Switzerland) in 2011 and received its first organic certification for wild collection of southern schisandra. It has maintained organic certification hitherto, switching to CERES (Shanghai) Certification Co., Ltd. in 2014.

Because the schisandra harvest was taking place within the giant panda habitat, a wildlife-friendly standard, the Standards for Giant Panda Friendly Products, also was developed and tested as an outcome of the ECBP and went on to become an official Chinese national standard in 2017. The panda-friendly standard requires harvested TCM ingredients to be “favourable or bring no harm to the maintenance and improvement of wild giant panda populations [and] habitat quality … during [the ingredients’] entire production, including wild-harvesting, cultivation, post-harvest processing, and sales.”1

In 2012, the ECBP panda-friendly schisandra project received the UNDP Equator Prize, which is awarded to outstanding local initiatives that advance sustainable development for people, nature, and resilient communities.11 Importantly, the initial five-year project supported by governmental and nongovernmental organizations is, according to this report, thriving at the 10-year mark as an independent, self-supporting, sustainable, long-term venture.

In September 2015, the PSTCMC announced its readiness to branch out to other TCM herbs in its management area. New ingredients proposed to be harvested under the panda-friendly, certified organic management plan include dong quai (Angelica sinensis, Apiaceae) root, gastrodia (Gastrodia elata, Orchidaceae) rhizome, magnolia (Magnolia officinalis, Magnoliaceae) flower bud, and Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum, Polygonaceae) root and rhizome.

In the past few years, there has been a push to expand the range of panda-friendly ingredients, products, and production bases. Other cooperatives in other provinces within the giant panda habitat areas are working toward inspection and panda-friendly certification for a range of other botanicals, including Chinese salvia (Salvia miltiorrhiza, Lamiaceae) root and rhizome, coptis (Coptis chinensis or C. deltoidea, Ranunculaceae) rhizome, Dahurian angelica (Angelica dahurica, Apiaceae) root, sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides, Elaeagnaceae) fruit, Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum, Rutaceae) fruit and peel, and turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) rhizome, among others.


  1. Brinckmann JA, Luo W, Xu Q, He X, Wu J, Cunningham AB. Sustainable harvest, people and pandas: Assessing a decade of managed wild harvest and trade in Schisandra sphenanthera. J Ethnopharmacol. 2018;224:522-534.
  2. Committee of Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy. Taiwan Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 2nd Edition, English Version. Taipei City: Ministry of Health and Welfare; 2016.
  3. Chinese Pharmacopoeia Commission. Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (2015) Volume I. Beijing: China Medical Science Press; 2015.
  4. Wang H, Zhong H, Hou R, et al. A diet diverse in bamboo parts is important for Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) metabolism and health. Sci Rep. 2017;7:3377.
  5. Li R, Xu M, Wong MHG, et al. Climate change threatens giant panda protection in the 21st century. Biol Conserv. 2015;182:93-101.
  6. Tuanmu M-N, Viña A, Winkler JA, et al. Climate-change impacts on understorey bamboo species and giant pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains. Nat Clim Change. 2012;3:249.
  7. Swaisgood R, Wang D, Wei F. Ailuropoda melanoleuca (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T712A121745669. 2016. Accessed November 5, 2019
  8. Meinshausen F, Winkler S, Bächi R, Staubli F, Dürbeck K. FairWild Standards, Version 1. Weinfelden, Switzerland: Institute for Market Ecology; 2006.
  9. FairWild Foundation. FairWild Standard: Version 2.0. Weinfelden, Switzerland: FairWild Foundation; 2010.
  10. United States Department of Agriculture. NOP 5022 Wild Crop Harvesting Internal Rev 01 07 22 11. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture; 2011.
  11. Lindstrom A. Sponsor of sustainable and panda-friendly Chinese schisandra project awarded a 2012 Equator Prize. HerbalGram. 2012(95):21.