Conservationists are teaming up with traditional healers in South Africa to save the pepper-bark tree also known as Warburgia salutaris from extinction. UK-based Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) is part of a Warburgia Working Group which was formed in 2014.
The group works in the Kruger National Park and other parts of Africa including Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Kenya. They have distributed 35,000 pepper-bark seedlings to 15,000 community members. Pepper Bark tree roots have been used for centuries in South Africa to treat ailments including malaria, sinusitis, burns and diarrhoea but non-sustainable harvesting methods have brought the tree to be 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 from Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Botha highlighted that plant material is often harvested by non-specialist gatherers. He explains that trees can withstand a controlled amount of harvesting of bark but if too much bark is harvested from an individual, or it is ring barked, the tree is likely to die.
The tree’s bark has been scientifically proven to assist with health benefits, including anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compounds. 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. 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”, says Botha.
Experts say harvesting the leaves and twigs, rather than the bark, has been recommended over the years in South Africa. “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. The Pepper tree is reported to have become extinct in recent years in Zimbabwe, although experts say a more detailed survey could reveal it still exists in the wild.
BGCI is supported by Sappi, together they are working to replant the trees in Zimbabwe’s south-eastern Mutema Highlands, although only one seed-bearing pepper-bark tree is known to grow in a garden in Harare. According to Yvette Harvey-Brown from BGCI’s, the seedlings have been grown and distributed in the Mutema Highlands.