Protecting our rich culture and biodiversity for future generations

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

Although the leaves of the Pepper-bark Tree (Warburgia salutaris) are reportedly used in curries and to flavour other foods in Kenya, the species is more commonly known for its healing properties throughout its range in East and southern Africa. This attractive evergreen tree grows in diverse habitats, including forest, kloofs, thickets, and open woodlands. Historically, it was distributed from north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland to Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and Zimbabwe, extending into Mozambique and Malawi. Today though, the Pepper-bark is classified as Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, and many of its habitats are degraded and fragmented through human activities and the impacts of alien plants.

In 2020, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), with the support of the Fondation Franklinia, initiated a strategic conservation project in Limpopo to safeguard the Pepper-bark for future generations. To achieve this, we need to protect and improve the management of existing Pepper-bark Tree habitats and ensure that people who have historically depended on this tree for medicine, and continue to do so, have legal access to it.

To secure habitat for the Pepper-bark and other plant and animal species of high conservation value, the EWT has been collaborating with the Limpopo Department of Development and Tourism (LEDET) and private landowners in Limpopo to increase formal protection of these sites. It is also important to manage these habitats effectively. Over the past two years, we cleared alien vegetation from 25 hectares of Pepper-bark habitat.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we were able to meet with over 100 traditional healers, community leaders, and other community members from 25 villages or towns to discuss mutual challenges arising through the loss of the Pepper-bark through overharvesting. Traditional healers, leaders, and community members welcomed donations of Pepper-bark saplings that will enable them to harvest directly from their gardens in future. Thanks to a year of high rainfall, the trees are growing well and will provide the traditional healers with a vital source of bark, roots, and root-bark in upcoming years. The traditional healers can also use the tree’s leaves now that scientists have verified that they contain the same phytochemical constituents as the bark and roots. This has the potential to substantially reduce the impacts of harvesting from the wild, as it is far easier to harvest sustainably if the leaves can be used instead of bark or roots.

We would like to thank SAPPI, the Agricultural Resource Council, and SANParks for the donation of 2,000 trees to this project and look forward to continuing this exciting journey with the many traditional healers, communities, and other conservation partners who are participating in this initiative.

Pepper-bark Tree saplings (left) and a fully grown Pepper-bark Tree (right)