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STRATEGIC CONSERVATION OF THE PEPPER-BARK TREE IN THE SOUTPANSBERG

Jenny Botha, Programme Manager, EWT People in Conservation Programme, jennyb@ewt.org.za

Traditional medicine has evolved over thousands of years, resulting in the development of an extensive herbal pharmacopoeia. Some of our earliest records of ancient herbal remedies were inscribed on clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating back to about 2,600 BC (Gurib-Fakim, 2006). Traditional medicine is still widely used across the world today. African Traditional Medicine Day was celebrated on 31 August 2020.

The World Health Organisation describes traditional medicine as: “the sum total of knowledge, skill and practices based on the theories, beliefs ad experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, that are used to maintain health, as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illness”. Over the past 2-3 decades, there have been sustained efforts through the World Health Organisation and others to integrate traditional medicine into international and national health care systems. This health care modality is now officially recognised and regulated through legislation in South Africa, and a directorate of Traditional Medicine has been established by the National Dept of Health.

In South Africa, over 2,060 plant species have been recorded as being used in traditional medicine – approximately 10% of the total number of species that occur here (Williams V.L., Victor J.E. and Crouch N.R. 2013). Many species are facing increasing pressures in the wild through high levels of use as well as other human pressures, including loss of habitat through urbanization, agriculture, industrial expansion, and other activities. Amongst these species is the Pepper-bark tree, which is now classified as Endangered on the Red Data List.

The Pepper-bark tree is an evergreen tree that typically grows to about 5-10 m in height. It occurs in temperate climates in forests and woodlands in mountains and hills in eastern and southern Africa, including parts of KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces, Mozambique, Swaziland and Malawi. Its English and Afrikaans names refer to the peppery taste of the bark and leaves.  ‘Salutaris’ means ‘healthful’, alluding to the reason it is so widely sought after not only for traditional medicine but also as an alternative remedy in tablet form on the shelves of pharmacies.

The scientific name of Pepper-bark tree is Warburgia salutaris. It is known as Mulanga or Manakha in Venda; isiBaha/isiBhaha in Zulu, Peperbasboom or Peperblaarboom in Afrikaans, and Molaka in South Sotho.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust recently embarked on an exciting project to conserve this significant tree in the Soutpansberg, Limpopo Province. This multi-pronged project includes the monitoring of existing populations and improving the natural habitat through the removal of alien and invasive plant species that encroach on its habitat. Over 10,000 invasive Sicklebush (Dichrostachys cinerea) trees have been removed since April/May 2020. The wood was made available to local communities for firewood.

We are also assessing the extent of trade in local markets and will be working with traditional healers to encourage the cultivation of this important species in homesteads. Scientists have confirmed that the same active phytochemicals occur in the bark and the leaves of the Pepper-bark tree. This means that the leaves can be substituted for the bark in traditional medicine. Harvesting the leaves of trees more sustainable than removing bark, particularly if the tree is cultivated in homesteads. The leaves are also starting to appear in some markets, which is encouraging from a conservation perspective.

We would like to thank the Fondation Franklinia for their support of this project, which not only contributes to the strategic conservation of the Endangered Pepper-bark tree, but also ensures that people who depend on traditional medicine will continue to access this important species in the future.

References

Gurib-Fakim A. 2006. Medicinal plants: traditions of yesterday and drugs of tomorrow. Molecular Aspects of Medicine: 27: 1-93

Williams V.L., Victor J.E. and Crouch N.R. 2013. Red Listed medicinal plants of South Africa: status, trends and assessment challenges South African Journal of Botany 86: 23-25.