The most common medical treatments administered by traditional healers are hot and cold infusions, powders which are rubbed into the body where incisions have been made, poultices, lotions, ointments, vapour baths, emetics and enemas. Researchers are investigating the active ingredients of medicinal plant species as these may be useful in pharmaceutical medicine.
Each year thousands of indigenous plants are gathered from bushveld, grasslands and forests, putting severe pressure on the species collected. In addition, the habitat in which these species occur is shrinking as more and more natural vegetation is destroyed for agriculture, timber, industry and urban settlement.
Many of the plants collected for medicinal use are specially protected species, i.e. collection of the plants without a permit is illegal. Although people illegally collecting protected species may be prosecuted, the demand for these plants is so great that collectors are often prepared to take the risk of being caught in order to earn a living.
Research has shown that the massive demand for bark, roots, and whole plants from wild populations is causing a critical decline in population numbers of some species, and may lead to numerous extinctions. At greatest risk are popular, slow growing species that have a limited distribution. Concern about this problem has brought conservationists and resource users together to investigate possible solutions.
* Research into sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants will help both conservationists and resource users develop management guidelines for the collection of these species.
* Alternative supplies to collecting from the wild are being investigated. For example, it is possible to rescue plants from development sites such as dams, and new farm and forestry lands.
* Most of the gatherers of medicinal plants are women who are forced to over-exploit the resource as one of their few income earning options. An improvement in both the economy and education will give these women a greater range of job opportunities from which to choose, hopefully relieving some of the pressure on medicinal plants as a source of income.
* Negotiations are underway to integrate traditional practitioners into formal medical structures. The proposed accreditation would bring recognition and approval of their important role. It would also allow for ongoing training of traditional practitioners in all areas, including the sustainable use of the plants upon which their practice is totally dependant.
* The development of patent or pharmaceutical medicines with the same name and action as their herbal counterparts might take the pressure of wild supplies.
The results of over-exploitation of medicinal plants is felt first by those involved with traditional healing, either as collectors, traders, traditional practitioners and herbalists. Traditional medicines also have the potential to form the basis of pharmaceutical drugs for the treatment of a range of diseases. Thus the loss of these potentially valuable genetic resources ultimately affects the whole of society.
In addition, ethnobotanists are concerned with the conservation and sustainable use of plant resources, a concern which raises the pressing socio-economic and political issues of access to land, employment and natural resources.
* Ring-barking of most large stinkwood and assegai trees in KwaZulu/Natal has reduced the numbers of these trees drastically and this bark is now obtained from areas within the former Transkei.
* Although plant material forms the basis of most traditional medicines, animal parts are also used. As with plants, there is concern that exploitation of certain animals is contributing to a serious decline in their numbers. Of particular concern are the python, pangolin, striped weasel, giant girdled lizard, and the Cape, lappet-faced, and whiteheaded vultures. WHAT YOU CAN DO * Grow medicinal plants! Silverglen Nursery can supply a simple starter pack with instructions on how to get started and also offer one-day educational workshops for interested people.
* If you are a landowner, consider supplying seed to Silverglen Nursery, the Natal Parks Board, the KwaZulu Dept. Nature Conservation, or local traditional healers.
* If you own, or know of land that is to be developed, contact your local conservation agency or regional Botanical Society branch to negotiate salvaging the medicinal plants.
HERBALIST HANDBOOK: AFRICAN FLORA MEDICINAL PLANTS. J. Pujol. Natur Africa, Natal, 1992.
HERBAL MEDICINE TRADE - HIDDEN ECONOMY. T. Cunningham. Indicator SA. 6(3), 1989.
STRIPED WEASELS: TRADITIONAL MEDICINES AND CONSERVATION. A. Cunningham and A. Zondi. Endangered Wildlife (11)10-15, 1992.
All books available from Russel Friedman Books, PO Box 73, Halfway House 1685. Tel. 011-70022300/1.
Traditional Medicine Association. PO Box 7957, Johannesburg, 2000. Tel. 011-333 6430.
National Inyangas Association. PO Box 118, Kranskop, 3550. Tel. 03344 - 33103.
National Botanic Institute. Natal Herbarium, Botanic Gardens Road, Durban, 4000. Tel. 031-224095/6, and P/Bag X7, Claremont, 7735. Tel. 021-762 1166.
Silverglen Nursery. Durban Parks Department, PO Box 3740, Durban, 4000. Tel. 031- 433608.
Institute of Natural Resources. The Southern Foundation Ethnobotany Programme. PO Box 375, Pietermaritzburg, 3200. Tel. 0331-68317.
Natal Parks Board. PO Box 662, Pietermaritzburg, 3200. Tel. 0331-471961.
National Parks Board. Senior Education Officer, Kruger National Park, PO Box 50, Skukuza, 1350. Tel. 01311-65611.
KwaZulu Dept. Nature Conservation. P/Bag X98, Ulundi, 3838. Tel. 0358-700552
Foundation for Research Development. PO Box 2600, Pretoria, 0001. Tel. 012-8414076.