Working with Traditional Healers to save an Endangered Medicinal Tree: Pepper-bark Tree (Warburgia salutaris)

Louise Swemmer
Published: 16 December 2021
Last edited: 16 December 2021
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Warburgia salutaris–  Pepper Bark Tree (English), Xibhaha (Tsonga), isibhaha (Zulu),  is harvested for various reasons such as timber and firewood – with its use in traditional medicine having the most notable impacts. Demand for this species was so high that even populations within protected areas were being harvested.  In efforts to mitigate the decline in this species, a very successful conservation model has been developed and implemented since 2009 to reduce the threat of overharvesting of wild subpopulations present within Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa. Approximately 30000 saplings were mass propagated in a partnership between the South African National Parks (in the Skukuza Indigenous nursery) the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), SAPPI and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). These saplings have been distributed to user groups in the vicinity of the Kruger National Park, both in Limpopo and in Mpumalanga Provinces, including to Traditional Healthers.


East and South Africa
Scale of implementation
Grassland ecosystems
Temperate grassland, savanna, shrubland
Access and benefit sharing
Biodiversity mainstreaming
Health and human wellbeing
Indigenous people
Outreach & communications
Protected and conserved areas governance
Science and research
Species management
Sustainable livelihoods
Traditional knowledge
Species Conservation and One Health Interventions
Species Status Assessment
Species Monitoring and Research
Species Intensive Management (in situ or ex situ)
Species Conservation Planning
Loss of Biodiversity
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Sustainable development goals
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 18: Traditional knowledge
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge


South Africa | Zimbabwe, Eswatini


Even though W. salutaris can withstand a certain degree of harvesting, through regrowing stripped bark and production of coppice shots, detrimental harvesting methods such as ring-barking consequently results in death of the tree. Warburgia salutaris is highly sought after because it has chemical medicinal properties that can treat various ailments such as malaria, colds, and coughs. Hence the demand for its tissue (leaves, bark, and roots) is increasing with an increase in human population globally. Other development activities such as agriculture also impact the wild populations of this species due to habitat loss because areas are cleared out to make way for agricultural activities, residential areas, shopping malls, sand mining and other social developments.


Traditional Healers play a central role in South African communities, as they are the main health care providers to the majority of rural based South Africans. 

How do the building blocks interact?

These projects aim at mitigating the decline of W. salutaris in the wild while ensuring the sustainable use of this species for socio-cultural well-being of the communities.


In 2020, an extended consortium of conservation partners led by SANBI developed a Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for six species, which included W. salutaris. The BMP involved community engagements with the network of Traditional Healers working in the region to encourage a collective approach, which is inclusive of the socio-cultural beliefs of the communities before implementing conservation initiatives. As a result of this engagement there will be an expansion of the Traditional Healer home-garden approach for a suite of medicinal species throughout Mpumalanga and Limpopo. A further propagation and distribution project is also being planned for the northern Limpopo region run by the Endangered Wildlife Trust with support from the Franklinia Foundation. As a result of conservation interventions undertaken, it appears that pressure on wild populations is decreasing. As a result this species has been down listed to “Vulnerable” in the 2021 Red List assessment undertaken as part of the IUCN’s Global Tree Assessment. This is an excellent example that conservation efforts can mitigate pressure on species while still meeting the cultural and health needs of local communities. 

Contributed by

Nolwazi.Mbongwa_41439's picture

Nolwazi Mbongwa South African National Biodiversity Institute, University of Cape Town

Other contributors

South African National Biodiversity Institute
South Africa National Parks