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Conservationists, healers team up to save pepper-bark tree

Non-sustainable harvesting methods have brought the healing tree close to extinction.

Workshop and pepper-bark seedling distribution in the Mutema Highlands in Zimbabwe. Picture: Botanic Gardens Conservation International

HARARE - Conservationists are teaming up with traditional healers in South Africa to save the pepper-bark tree from extinction.

An unremarkable-looking evergreen, the pepper-bark tree's bark and roots have been used for centuries here to treat ailments including malaria, sinusitis, burns and diarrhoea.

But non-sustainable harvesting methods have brought the Warburgia salutaris, as it's also known, close to extinction.

A small bundle of the peppery tasting bark sells for around R20 in urban areas, less in the countryside.

Traditionally, medicinal plants were protected through careful harvesting techniques handed down over the generations, explained Dr Jenny Botha, People in Conservation Programme Manager with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).

But demand is outstripping supply.

“Plant material is now often harvested by non-specialist gatherers,” Botha told EWN.

“While trees can withstand a controlled amount of harvesting of bark, if too much bark is harvested from an individual, or it is ring barked, the tree is likely to die.”

A pepper-bark tree bearing the scars of bark harvesters. Picture: EWT

Unlike rhino horn, the tree’s bark has scientifically proven health benefits, including anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compounds. But, say the experts, so do the leaves, and these can be harvested much more sustainably.

Botha said conservationists were working with traditional healers to encourage users and harvesters to substitute leaves for bark although “dosages and other healing aspects need to be considered”.

“People who depend on the land and resources are often acutely aware of factors that lead to degradation. We need to find ways to partner with people to overcome the obstacles blocking them from managing resources more effectively,” she added.

Field rangers from EWT beside a pepper-bark tree at Medike Nature Reserve in Limpopo. Picture: EWT

Balancing the sometimes competing interests of conservation and people will be the focus of the project.

“Although it is critical to secure the habitats of the pepper-bark to ensure that it survives in the wild, it is also important to ensure that people’s needs are met, and that this important medicinal plant survives to meet the needs of future generations,” said Botha.

Harvesting the leaves and twigs, rather than the bark, has been recommended for a number of years in South Africa. It is something that conservationists in neighbouring Zimbabwe are also trying to encourage. Here the tree is reported to have become extinct in recent years, although experts say a more detailed survey could reveal it still exists in the wild.

Leaves of the pepper-bark tree. Picture: Ryan Truscott/EWN

Leaves of the pepper-bark tree have the same medicinal properties as the bark. Picture: Ryan Truscott

The UK-based Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which has financial and technical support from Sappi which runs a similar programme to save pepper-park trees in the Kruger National Park, is working to replant the trees in Zimbabwe’s south-eastern Mutema Highlands.

Only one seed-bearing pepper-bark tree is known to grow in a garden in Harare. The seeds from that tree have been used in the seedling-growing project. So too have seeds brought in from South Africa.

The seedlings have been grown and distributed in the Mutema Highlands, said BGCI’s Yvette Harvey-Brown.

BGCI is part of a Warburgia Working Group formed in 2014. With support and funding from Sappi, it works in the Kruger, Kwazulu Natal, the Eastern Cape, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Kenya.

The EWT's Oldrich van Schalkwyk logging location data of a pepper-bark tree at the Soutpansberg Protected Area. Picture: EWT

The working group has distributed 35,000 pepper-bark seedlings to 15,000 community members.

“I think highlighting the importance of the medicinal nature of this species has been very important – particularly that the leaves can be harvested in a sustainable way rather than targeting the bark,” Harvey-Brown said.

“We would like to engage with traditional healers even more in the future.”

Some conservationists say degradation of the plant’s habitat, including a take-over by exotic species that have no natural competitors or pests to keep their numbers in check, is also putting the survival of the pepper-bark at risk.

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