At the back of the Skukuza nursery there is an unassuming row of planting sheds, which most visitors simply pass by without ever knowing its existence. It is where seeds get a kick start at life, where young plants are nurtured and all the magic happens and the real beauty is the simplicity of it all.
The seeds or clippings are harvested by Kruger botanist Michele Hofmeyr and her team, or collected by rangers, as every plant sold in the nursery is indigenous to the area. Then it is just a matter of transplanting the seeds, clippings or even seedlings into a suitable medium and adding a bit of water. But this simple process of collecting, cutting and cultivating, might have huge implications in curtailing plant poaching and ensuring the survival of some of South Africa’s most endangered plant species.
The pepper-bark tree Warburgia salutaris, was once widespread over Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Madagascar and Swaziland. However, habitat loss through urbanization and agriculture, along with the plants specific ecological requirements, has meant that only a few small pockets of trees now exist in the wild. In fact in Zimbabwe, only 10 trees are believed to exist in the wild, giving pepper-bark the unwanted accolade of being categorized as endangered on both IUCN and SANBI red species list. Endangered species can so easily be pushed over the brink and become extinct.
If that is the case for the pepper-bark tree the knock on effect would be two-fold. Losing any species has great ecological significance but for the pepper-bark tree there will also be a dramatic social and economic impact on society. Pepper-bark has been used for centuries in African medicine, and is one of the most sought after commodities in the Southern African traditional health care sector.
With estimates of 27million people relying on traditional medicine in South Africa alone, the demand for pepper-bark tissue is immense. The uses for it are wide ranging from giving sinus relief to treating malaria. It is the widespread popularity that has lead to the remaining pockets of pepper-bark trees being severely overharvested.
This has come about due to a shift in how medicinal plants are harvested. Traditionally, only the traditional healer would harvest the plants they used.
They would do this sustainably, as they had an incentive to ensure their sources remained viable for years to come. It was the bark that was harvested in the case of the pepper-bark tree, although recent studies have shown that the leaves, shoots and roots have the same chemical properties. Thin strips would be taken, which allowed for the plant to heal easily. Now unfortunately it is a different story. In addition to the traditional healers collecting sustainably, commercial gatherers are also harvesting pepper-bark.
They usually come from some of the larger urban centers, and have no cultural ties to the ecosystems from where they harvest which results in a lack of incentive to harvest sustainably. In the case of pepper-bark this often means ring barking the tree, and specifically selecting bigger trees, in order to get as much profit as possible. It is the switch from sustainable collection to commercial gathering, that has seen many plants used in traditional medicine be pushed to the brink of extinction.
Certainly in South Africa if there are existing populations of pepper-bark trees, they are located only in protected area.
Game parks, botanical gardens and protected areas provide a glimmer of hope for a species on the teetering on the edge of extinction, however it poses an interesting social question: Are we forcing people into poaching by placing a higher importance on the protection of a species over the cultural traditions and beliefs of those who have utilised the species for centuries?
If there is a demand then there will always be pressure on the plants. The key is to reduce or to satisfy the demand and often this involves managing access to the resource. Education is one route, engaging with traditional healers with regards to the active properties also being present in the leaves and shoots, which grow quicker and hence are easier to harvest sustainably.
However, there are some traditional healers in South Africa that have embraced this opportunity and are using leaves as opposed to bark in their health practices at home. Another angle is to start cultivating pepper-bark trees from seeds, or cuttings, that can be supplied to traditional healers. This is what the SANParks Warburgia Conservation Program (WCP) initiated in 2008 is attempting to do.
By working in conjunction with the Vukuzenzele Nursery and Medicinal Garden, who specialises in medicinal plants, the WCP has begun an outreach initiative.
The goals are two fold: to train traditional healers in the artificial propagation of pepper-bark and to engage with traditional healers about the potential for using leaves as opposed to bark and roots in their daily health practices. The Vukuzenzele Nursery have been successful in artificially propagating Warburgia cuttings for a number of years, and are currently engaging with SANParks and with the Skukuza Nursery in refining the process.
The Skukuza nursery is experimenting with different potting media, and are also attempting to grow plants from seed, although this is proving to be trickier as the seeds dry out quickly and the fruit is often heavily parasitized.
While the project is only in its early stages, a couple of dozen seedlings and an equal amount of clippings in the Skukuza nursery, and a few hundred established cuttings in Vukuzenzele mark the first step in a long process which herald a brighter future for pepper-bark and other rare medicinal species.