Michele du Plessis
In South Africa, traditional healers treat approximately 30 million people per year. Traditional healers rely on wild-harvested natural plants and animals for the health, well-being and economic purposes and there is potential for conflict between biodiversity protection and the utilisation of medicinal plants. If the harvesting from natural habitats takes place without regulation, some species of medicinal plants and animals will be driven to extinction.
The more than 27 million consumers in this informal industry in the trade of wild harvested medicines directly employ at the very least 200 000 people, including traditional healers, all of whom applies indigenous plants in their remedies. This industry represents a hidden economy estimated to be worth more than R 2, 9 billion per year. These numbers exclude the people who buy from informal markets. About 6% of South Africa’s land surface is under some sort of legal conservation with nearly 500 state-operated protected areas.
This wild harvesting of medicinal plants is resulting in adverse ecological impacts: some species have already made it onto the red data list as many people harvest plants indiscriminately as a source of income.
Jaco Klopper, the owner of the South African Bush-warrior Association, an Environmental Conservation Organisation in Mpumalanga, recently discovered eight bags, weighing between 35-40kg each, from indiscriminate wild harvesters in a conservation area. “We were tracking, listening and watching. But we just could not find the people digging and cutting up the whole place. So one day, I noticed a fresh path moving into the conservation area. I could not help myself. It’s like… I wonder what’s down that rabbit hole. Calypso, my trained Rottweiler, took the lead and about two minutes later we found the first of eight bags,” Jaco said.
“There is definitely miscommunication and a misalignment between the regulatory environmental authorities, resulting in challenges to implementation, as well as high non-compliance and poor enforcement by national, provincial and local authorities. The use of medicinal plants makes up an important part of African culture and authorities often turn a blind eye to over-harvesting. These issues need to be addressed in an effort to protect our natural resources,” Jaco stated.
Captain Frank Hollier, Phoenix K9 Sabie, said that the problem is amplified by threatened plants and people’s traditional rights. “The biggest problem is that there are no specialized police units anymore. Fauna and Flora were changed to the Species Protection Unit and then disbanded. Now it’s a free for all. The National Environmental Act is where under this falls. So, if you catch someone with plants, you must be able to prove where the plants were harvested and that the plants are on the protected indigenous plant list,” Captain Frank said. “Governmental management responsibility for mainstreaming community access to natural resources is largely fragmented and weakly implemented.”
Despite the potential illegality of the activity, for more than 55% of the wild resource harvesters, this is primarily an economic survival strategy. Some of the harvesters come from households which received social grants from government, such as old-age pensions and child-support grants. Also, 80% of the harvesters have the perceived rights to access local protected area and natural resources; a perspective of open access rights to wild habitats and biological materials. These perceived user rights are underpinned by economic, cultural and historical experiences and the widespread harvesting and trade of fauna and flora.
From a conservation and protection perspective, indiscriminate and consumptive usage of the natural wild resources, compounded by the traditional perceived rights of healers and harvesters and the increased fragility of our local biodiversity leading to an ecological catastrophe.