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High demand for bark puts bite on African 'medicine tree'

the bark processing process

March 18, 1997
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EST

In this story:

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

WESTERN CAMEROON (CNN) -- The bark of a tree the people of Cameroon call "wotango" has become a popular medical treatment, especially for men with prostate problems.

International demand is so great that the tree -- commonly known as red stinkwood or African cherry -- is now in jeopardy of being over-exploited in this central African country along the Atlantic coast.

The bark is chopped from "wotango" trees in wet, highland forests -- some of them on the slopes of Mount Cameroon. From there, it's taken to processing plants where the bark is chopped up, ground into a powder and turned into an extract ready for export to Europe.

In liquid form, the bark is used to treat enlarged prostate glands, an increasingly common health problem affecting older men.

Bark stripping is big business

The chemical compounds in the bark are so complicated, scientists have not been able to synthesize it.

"Wotango" is the only source, making the tree an easy target for illegal bark collectors. Nearly all such trees at Cameroon's lower elevations are dead.

Once the bark is gone the tree dies. In some cases, the trees are chopped down first because it's easier to strip the bark that way.

Also known by its botanical name, Prunus africana, the tree actually is widespread across Africa. But in areas like Cameroon where its bark is harvested commercially, it is now severely threatened.

Managed harvests have disappeared


After the medical value of the bark was identified 30 years ago, a French pharmaceutical company hired and trained its own workers to harvest the bark in a controlled way, allowing the tree to regenerate.

But everything changed in 1985 when the government of Cameroon ended the company's monopoly and gave harvesting licenses to local businesses.

Since then, bark collecting has gone out of control.

"It's building up into a mafia because it fetches quick money," says Sam Endeley, paramount chief of Bakweris.

In nearby villages, young men admit they harvest illegally, selling bark to contractors who come with pickup trucks at night.

"Many of them say they don't have a job, so they can only peel these trees," explains Samwel Mbella, a mountain guide. "That's (how) they can earn a living."

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Illegal bark collectors

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  • But the illegal harvesters blame Cameroon's leaders for what has happened, saying government indifference and corruption allow the process to continue.

    Why should they stand by and obey the law, they say, when others are making money?

    Villager William Nygme told CNN he and the other illegal harvesters would welcome a government-controlled system allowing them to remove the bark in a sustainable way that protects both the trees and the villagers' future earnings.

    Growing their own trees

    It may be too late to save these trees in the wild, so Plantecam, the company that processes the bark, is hedging the future.

    To keep its supply coming, Plantecam is growing seedlings -- distributing thousands of them to villagers interested in starting small tree plantations.

    The seedlings eventually might be the only surviving "wotangos," a medicine tree too valuable for its own good.


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