Overharvesting of SA’s medicinal plants could leave millions of people without healthcare support

Water Research Commission

If South Africa’s medicinal plants experience continuous overharvesting, millions of people will not have access to the premier healthcare service they provide in the near future.

This is according to latest report released by the Water Research Commission (WRC) on the distribution, use and ecological roles of medicinal plants in freshwater ecosystems.

It has been estimated that the local trade in medicinal plants amounts to 20 000 t per annum, representing 574 species. An estimated 30 million people make regular use of the services of the country’s 200 000 traditional healthcare practitioners, all of whom apply indigenous and exotic plants in their remedies. This number excludes the people who purchase medicinal plants solely from informal markets.

While the properties and use of medicinal plants have been well researched in South Africa, their natural habitats are less well studied. The WRC study, undertaken by independent researchers Dr Johan Wentzel and Carin van Ginkel, focused on building knowledge around the country’s freshwater medicinal plants. The researchers also sought to assess to what extent current national legislation can be utilised for the protection of freshwater medicinal plants.

Freshwater-associated medicinal plants still occupy a highly specialised habitat, and it is important that this habitat be understood so that protection measures can be put in place to ensure their survival. Most of these species are habitat-specific, such as certain ground orchids, pineapple lilies and red-hot pokers.

According to the WRC Executive Manager, Dr Stanley Liphadzi, most of the country’s freshwater systems have to endure circumstances far beyond their resilience capabilities. Far reaching destruction of the country’s wetlands has unfortunately occurred as a result of mining, agriculture and urban developments, and pollution. Damage to riparian areas threatens the country’s rivers.

The research team discovered and consequently listed 230 medicinal plants occurring in South Africa’s freshwater ecosystems. This list includes many of the most important medicinal plants for local communities. These include annual herbs, aquatic (submerged and free floating) plants, ferns, geophytes, grasses, perennial herbs, sedges, shrubs and trees. The perennial herbs were found to be the most utilised plant type, followed by trees, geophytes and shrubs.

The team found that medicinal plants are currently harvested at unsustainable rates in the wild. Some important plant species are already considered extinct outside protected areas. In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, the wild ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus), the pepper bark tree (Warbugia salutaris) and the black stinkwood (Ocotea bullata ) are no longer found outside reserves and parks .

“The true traditional healer who understands ecology will never overharvest,’’ says Dr Wentzel. “Unfortunately, many people now harvest plants indiscriminately as a source of income. Since it is understood that the use of medicinal plants makes up an important part of African culture, authorities often turn a blind eye to overharvesting”, adds Dr Wentzel.

Wild populations of medicinal plants need protection. One way to achieve this would be to establish holding nurseries on a regional scale where local traditional health practitioners and plant gatherers can obtain stock that they can propagate themselves. Emphasis should be placed on training the traditional health practitioners and plant gatherers to enable them to propagate their own medicinal plants.

The report, entitled Distribution, use and ecological roles of the medicinal plants confined to freshwater ecosystems in South Africa (Report no. KV 300/12), can be downloaded from the Water Research Commission website www.wrc.or.za.

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