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A life-saving prescription for plants

October 2, 2018

African healers use the pepper bark tree to fight everything from cancer to colds. But its medicinal properties mean it's also under threat from poachers. Can conservationists find the right remedy to protect it?

Workers cultivating medicinal plants in South Africa
Image: Henner Frankenfeld

South Africa: Muti - a threat to nature

Project aim: Working with traditional healers to preserve endangered medicinal plants in and around Kruger National Park, South Africa

Project implementation: Establishing nurseries for medicinal plants, distributing seedlings to healers so they can plant and harvest them sustainably

Project budget: Approximately €80,000 ($94,000) annually

Project timeframe: 2009-present

Mahlal'etsheni Ka Khumalo is a Sangoma — a traditional healer in South Africa. When patients come to him, he prescribes medicine from a collection of herbs. He buys these medicinal plants at the market but isn't sure where they come from.

One thing that is sure: The market for medicinal plants in the country is huge. Many of them are plundered from the wild, including in Kruger National Park. The park is a haven for plants and animals, but with one million people, many of them poor, living on its borders, poaching herbal remedies seems like a decent way to earn some cash.

The magnificent old pepper bark tree in the park's north is not immune to the threat. The tree's bark is sought after to treat everything from cancer to malaria. The trees are so endangered as a result that a group of rangers has been assigned to protect them. Will conservationists find the right prescription to save the pepper bark tree?

A film by Henner Frankenfeld