Saving One Pepper-Bark at a Time

A grove of pepper-bark trees (Warburgia salutaris) is one such intensely guarded heritage jewel.

Since 2012 a special project has been put into place whereby tree guards are employed to guard the trees.

The project’s aim is to combat illegal harvesting of Warburgia. Traditional healers use it to fight bronchitis, yeast, fungal and bacterial infections and ulcers.

With an estimate of 27 million people relying on traditional medicine in South Africa alone, the demand for pepper-bark tissue is immense. Remaining pockets of pepper-bark trees have been severely over-harvested.

The species has been recognised as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1998. But it is not merely guarding the trees that led to the success of this multi-layered project. Workshops are also held to educate communities to be custodians of the trees, and to protect them in a sustainable way.

Sappi’s funding is also used for bagging nursery-grown trees in the Kruger’s Skukuza Nursery for distributing to identified traditional healers in the community.

Louise Swemmer, SANParks scientist for social and economic research, said to Lowvelder that there are multiple objectives within the project. This includes relationship building with all the communities growing these trees on the border of the Kruger from Phalaborwa to Punda Maria.

“These communities have received free trees to plant. We have grown together in this project. We have developed plans to face challenges, such as a scarcity of water, to keep the project feasible. We monitor the project each year and go back to these communities. It is a very rewarding experience,” said Swemmer.

For Sappi the project contains elements of education and engagement and working with rural communities.

“The project also supports Sappi’s biodiversity goals through the focus on sustainable use, and using our skills and research to promote protection of the species,” said regional communication manager for Sappi, Elsabe Coetzee.

The project has surpassed Sappi’s expectations in terms of buy-in from the key role players, progress in research and numbers available for distribution.

One of the drivers behind the project is head of the Skukuza Nursery botanist, Michelle Hofmeyr, who advocates engaging with healers to use leaves rather than the bark of the trees.

“Leaves are a better source of active ingredients,” said Hofmeyr. “The leaves and shoots also grow quicker and are easier to harvest sustainably.”

One of the attributes counting in the trees’ favor is that they are fast growers. They also grow well from cuttings which also help their propagation.

Kruger visitors can buy Warburgia plants at the Skukuza nursery.

Written by Elize Parker

Pictures: Elize Parker

Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za

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