Poachers Plunder Rare Plants

©Katy Jonson

Rhino poaching has grabbed headlines across the world. But there are other species that may not survive people's arbitrary actions. The Kruger National Park is attempting to cultivate wild ginger for medicinal nurseries in an effort to protect these rare plants and their natural habitats.

Unfortunately South Africa is experiencing dramatic increases in poaching. Rhino poaching in particular has soared in recent years; so much so, it has grabbed international, as well as national, attention.

But rhinos aren't the only species being obliterated by poachers. Currently countless other species, some endemic, most rare, are on the verge of being wiped out. The only difference between their fate and that of the rhinos is that they aren't deemed as "news worthy".

Whether it be pepper bark poaching in north of the Kruger National Park (KNP), vultures in the eastern parts of South Africa or abalone in the Western Cape, some of South Africa's most prized species are being pushed to the brink of extinction and yet most people seem totally oblivious to their plight. 

Wild ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus) is one of these species. This unpresuming, forest floor dwelling plant with its delicate orchid like flower, is deemed by some to have potent healing and magical powers. It is these cultural beliefs that are now threatening the plants very existence, prolonged periods of over-exploitation for medicinal plant trade.

©Katy Jonson

While wild ginger was once abundant, ranging from the Mpumalanga hills to the coast of KwazuluNatal, it is now becoming increasingly rare. Poaching has ensured its less than coveted place in the Red Data Book list of endangered species and is considered critically endangered as it is now locally extinct in Kwazulu Natal and found in only small isolated pockets in the remotest corners of Mpumalanga.

Even in the iconic Kruger, a supposed safe haven, the future of wild ginger populations is uncertain, and extreme measures have had to be put in place to ensure that the final few viable populations of naturally occurring wild ginger are protected. Populations outside the protective boundaries of South Africa's National Parks aren't so lucky.

Only recently a concerned gardener got in contact with the experts in Kruger to ask them to identify a plant she was sold in Hoedspruit. The plant, which had come via Acornhoek, was identified as wild ginger and has raised more concerns about the level of harvesting taking place in Mpumalanga, especially so near to the Kruger National Park.

Local Demand for Wild Ginger

Unlike the rhino's, the commercial market for wild ginger is a local one. In a number of African cultures wild ginger is highly prized for its medicinal properties. Known as indungulu, isiphephetho or ithole in the Zulu tradition. It is believe that the fleshy root and cone-shaped rhizomes of the wild ginger will ward off lightning and snakes if planted around their homes.

The Zulu also traditionally use the rhizomes as a remedy for asthma, colds an even hysteria, while the Swazi people use it as a cure for malaria, and the Xhosa use the powdered roots to ward off evil spirits. As with many traditional remedies controversy surrounds the legitimacy of these claims, although a recent pharmacological study showed that extracts from the leaves exhibited higher inflammation inhibition than certain pharmaceutical drugs.

Independent of the legitimacy of its medicinal properties, there is clearly still a huge market for wild ginger. Durban muthi markets rate wild ginger as one of the ten most popular items out of some 450 species in local commerce.

It is this huge demand for wild ginger, which is driving the illegal harvesting, or poaching, and unless it can be quelled then the poaching will continue. Unfortunately for the thousands of people bordering the Park and living well below the poverty line, poaching is a financially attractive prospect. But unlike many poaching stories, there is a glimmer of hope and this comes in the form of a SANParks initiative run by Michele Hofmeyr and her dedicated team at the Skukuza Indigenous Nursery.

In collaboration with a national scheme to conserve wild ginger, Michele and her team are attempting to cultivate wild ginger through rhizome division. Propagation is relatively simple, during the winter months when the leaves have died back and the plant is inactive, the rhizomes can be carefully split. As long as the roots aren't damaged a numerous plant can be easily grown from the rhizomes of the first. The Skukuza Nursery has been given special dispensation to cultivate and sell wild ginger to specific medicinal nurseries.

The wild ginger would then be supplied to these nurseries at a fraction of the cost poachers would ask. They hope by selling directly to the medicinal nurseries that supply the muthi market dealers they can cut out the poachers, thus supplying the demand whilst protecting the naturally occurring wild populations. What is more is that the initiative doesn't intend stopping there.

Ultimately the goal is to teach the muthi dealers and medicinal nurseries to cultivate their own wild ginger populations, which they will harvest sustainably. While currently South Africa's wild ginger populations remain in jeopardy, in the future there is a real chance that the SANParks proposal of educating the dealers to cultivate and sustainably harvest their own wild ginger will eradicate poaching.

What's more, it could lay the foundations for combating poaching of other species. Only by providing an alternative supply chain to poaching will this illegal trade be stamped out.

Learn more about Wild Ginger

Kruger National Park - South African Safari