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