Poachers Target Summer Impala Lily

The winter impala lily, (Adenium obesum), is a feature of most Kruger Park rest camps and can be found all over the park.

©Karin van der Walt and Lynette Strauss

Indeed the winter impala lily is somewhat of a floral icon of the Kruger, yet it is its summer counterpart that is really in demand.

Poaching has become a hot topic in South Africa, especially with the dramatic increase in rhino poaching over the last couple of years. But it is not just rhinos that are under threat. If a species has a commercial value, then it is at risk of being poached. From abalone to pepper bark, the existence of numerous South African flora and fauna species are being placed in jeopardy.

The summer impala lily, (Adenium swazicum), also known as the Swazi lyli, is one of a growing number of South African plants that are critically endangered and further poaching could push this species to the brink of extinction.

It is a species that has adapted to live in areas of low rainfall by having a large underground tuber, which acts as a storage device enabling the plant to survive in times of drought. Ironically, the same thing that enables the plant to survive also proves to be its downfall.

©Karin van der Walt and Lynette Strauss

For thousands of years traditional African healers have been using the tuber of the summer impala lily as a cure for numerous ailments. The tuber in its raw form is highly toxic; however once diluted, the extracts are a popular treatment for purging the body and can be found in almost every muti market from Nelspruit to Durban.

As the summer impala lily is considered critically endangered and is on the Threatened Or Protected Species (TOPS) list, being in procession of a summer impala lily without the appropriate permits is illegal. So, those selling and buying plants or extracts thereof without permits are breaking the law.

However, when it comes to enforcing this it is practically impossible, as the extracts of summer impala lily bear no resemblance to the original product. It also raises an interesting ethical question, are the people using and selling the extract really at fault?

Certainly they are breaking the law, but they aren't the only ones who are. Horticulturalists are equally guilty when it comes to the illegal collection of the summer impala lily. Rather than taking the tuber they take cuttings, to make hybrids.

The hybrid market, especially in some Asian countries, is rapidly expanding as there is a growing demand for plants with novel floral patterning and colouration.

While some will argue that poaching for the horticultural market is less destructive than poaching for the medicinal trade, as they just take clippings rather than digging up the whole plant, purists would say poaching is poaching, especially as there are TOPS registered nurseries like the one in Skukuza which can sell certified summer impala lilies legally.

Traditional healers have also been utilising wild populations of the summer impala lily for centuries and this has mostly been sustainable. It has only been in the last century that the harvesting of the summer impala lily has become unsustainable.

©Karin van der Walt and Lynette Strauss

The nutrient rich sodic sites that are home to the summer impala lily are also an ideal site for agriculture. It is the conversion of these sites into sugar cane plantations that has caused the damage when it comes to decimating summer impala lily populations. It has left only small pockets of summer impala lilies and it is these which are now being over harvested.

Changes in the way summer impala lilies are harvested are also having a negative impact. With the change from rural to urban living, it is often no longer the sangoma who collects plants from wild populations; rather it is commercial gatherers who harvest the plants and then provide the traditional healer with them.

There is less motivation for gatherers to collect sustainably, as once one population is exhausted they will either go to another or change the species that they provide.

The result of this is that unsustainable harvesting of wild summer impala lilies is commonplace. Indeed, a once thriving population in Managa has now virtually been wiped out by commercial gatherers.

Although the future for the summer impala lily - like many species threatened by poaching - is bleak, while it has a commercial value attached to it, there is hope.

South African National Parks (SANParks) are providing a safe haven for a number of protected populations and these are constantly monitored to ensure poaching isn't occurring.

They are also working in collaboration with the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) on a project that hopes to bypass poaching, by providing an alternative source of summer impala lilies to both horticulturalists and the medicinal trade, while empowering local communities.

©Karin van der Walt and Lynette Strauss

Wild seeds are collected, some of which are being germinated in Kruger's Skukuza nursery for commercial sale. Others are being used in community projects which hope to re-establish local populations which can then be sustainably used. Whether these initiatives will solve the problem of summer impala lily poaching only time will tell.

Plant poaching is as big an issue as abalone or even rhino poaching and while a plant doesn't bleed the impact of losing any species, in particular a plant species, has many unexpected effects. It is not just about losing the plant. It's about the knock-on ecological impact losing the plant has on other species.

This includes the impact on humans. Losing the summer impala lily means losing its medicinal properties too and it is not just the traditional medicine trade that could lose out.

These properties could also have value for westernised medicine, as many popular over-the-counter medicines originate from plants. So who knows what future cure we may lose if the summer impala lily or other critically endangered plants are lost?

Learn more about the Impala Lily

Dr. Katy Johnson

Kruger National Park - South African Safari