Joy as pepper-bark trees come back from the brink

September 9, 2022
FSA’s Nathi Ndlela and small-scale grower Rejoice Shozi hand over prized pepper-bark trees to the Dube Traditional Council and community members.

Forestry South Africa (FSA) has distributed rare and endangered pepper-bark trees (Warburgia salutaris) grown by the Warburgia Programme to schools, traditional healers and forestry community leaders, in celebration of Arbor Week.

This is in support of a highly successful initiative to propagate and re-establish this important indigenous tree which has become highly endangered throughout southern Africa due to rampant harvesting of its bark for use as traditional medicine.

Warburgia salutaris, commonly known as the pepper-bark tree or ‘isibhaha’ in isiZulu, is renowned for its medicinal anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. The bark of the tree has been used by traditional healers to cure colds and chest infections for centuries and is now registered by the South African Health Products Regulatory Body. Unfortunately, its popularity has pushed the species to the brink of extinction in the wild as commercial muti gatherers have been harvesting the bark from trees growing in the wild and even in protected conservation areas. As a result the trees have become increasingly scarce and are now considered critically endangered. The harvesting methods used by muti collectors are not sustainable and the trees often die a few months after harvesting.

Thankfully, a collaborative effort between Kruger National Park, Sappi, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Honorary Rangers and many other partners has brought this species back from the brink. A key part of the initiative is to promote the planting of the tree in suitable areas and to educate traditional healers and muti collectors how to harvest from the trees in a sustainable way that does not kill them off.

The FSA team decided to support this programme by distributing pepper-bark saplings in the small-scale grower communities to celebrate Arbor Week.

Nathi Ndlela putting in the work on a hot spring day in Zululand, where he planted a tree with learners of Amabuye Secondary School.

The event started in Mpembeni, part of the Dube Tribal Authority, where FSA's Business Unit Manager, Nathi Ndlela and small scale grower representative Rejoice Shozi, handed over trees to learners at Amabuye Secondary School and planted a tree with the learners. Trees were also handed over to local traditional leaders and traditional healers.

This was followed by a handover of trees by local small grower representative Busi Mnguni to community leaders, traditional healers as well as learners at Kantayi Secondary School at the iMkhwanazi Tribal Authority area near Port Dunford in Zululand.

Small grower representative Busi Mnguni addresses the Mkhwanazi Tribal Authority, community leaders and traditional healers about the value of conserving and sustainably harvesting the pepper-bark tree.

“Small-scale growers are the ones with the deepest ties to the communities neighbouring South Africa's forestry plantations, so it made sense to go through them when organising an Arbor Day celebration aimed at benefitting forestry communities and conservation," explained FSA’s Nathi Ndlela.

Commented Rejoice Shozi, FSA Small-Scale Grower representative : "I am happy and proud to be creating this connection between FSA and my community, it is important. It is also important that we are doing something that will benefit the conservation of nature and our soil, planting trees does this and we need to do more of it."

"We are highly appreciative of FSA coming into our community and donating these trees,” commented traditional healer Zakhele Nxumalo. “Pepper-bark trees are no longer found in our indigenous forests and people cannot access it locally. With these trees we can change this. We have also learnt today about how to grow and harvest these trees correctly, that cutting the bark can kill the tree, so it is better to harvest just the leaves that also have medicinal properties."

Traditional healer Zakhele Nxumalo (left), had never seen an actual pepper-bark tree before receiving his own sapling from FSA. He has to travel to Durban's muthi market to buy ‘isibhaha’.

Kruger National Park
The initiative to save the pepper-bark tree was launched in 2011 initially to propagate the trees and distribute them to communities living around the Kruger National Park in an attempt to take the pressure off the few remaining wild trees. In 2014, Sappi came on board and began using its tree breeding and production expertise to propagate pepper-bark trees from cuttings for distribution to rural communities, which expanded the project from the Kruger National Park to KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

A major breakthrough for the project was the discovery that the medicinal properties so highly prized in the bark, are also abundant in the twigs and leaves. Thus, the twigs and leaves of trees planted out in the field can be harvested within four years – much earlier than would be the case for bark harvesting which can only be done on an adult tree. This ensures that the trees can be harvested sustainably, providing health benefits and economic opportunities for traditional healers and muti traders alike.

A key aspect of the project is education. Workshops are held with traditional healers and community members to inform them about growing and nurturing the trees, as well as harvesting them sustainably.

A working group has been set up to co-ordinate and drive the Warburgia salutaris conservation project going forward. Gene banks and seed orchards have been established within this working group partnership, and assistance has been extended to Swazi and Zimbabwean conservation authorities to help them increase the number of trees growing in their countries.

Michele Hofmyer who has been involved with the Warburgia programme from the start, explains the importance of pepper-bark distribution programmes: "By handing out the plants freely to traditional healers and community members, we are taking the pressure off the wild populations. Traditional healers know what a rare and valuable plant this is, so are willing to accept cultivated pepper bark if they know the seeds were sourced from wild individuals. They are also open to new ways of utilising the plant, using the newest two leaves and bud instead of the bark, which are just as potent as the bark but far more sustainable to harvest. The robust nature of the pepper-bark tree, its readiness to grow in sunlight or shade and its ability to be planted straight into the ground or in a tub, makes it incredibly suitable to this kind of project. I hope that one day when we drive through the communities and neighbourhoods that have received our trees, there will be a pepper-bark growing in every garden, school and community building.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Warburgia Programme, it looks like the pepper bark's conservation status will be downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ when it is next reviewed.

The tree is formally protected under SA legislation in the revised National Forests Act (2012) and the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (2004).

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