Ecology and conservation status of six medicinal plants commonly used to treat diabetes in the eastern Free State, South Africa
Pitso, Teboho Raymond
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Diabetes mellitus is a global disease with an extreme effect on the quality of life of the patients and it is increasing among South Africans. South African population is predominantly black and medicinal plants represent an important asset to their livelihoods as it is to many people in developing countries. The communities from both rural and urban areas still rely on medicinal plants for their primary health care and income generation. However, the growing population and the general field collection practices of healers, herbalists and commercial gatherers are posing a serious extinction threat to the wild populations of medicinal plants. Six medicinal plants viz.: Hypoxis hemerocallidea, Dicoma anomala, Morella serrata, Gazania krebsiana, Xysmalobium undulatum and Eriocephalus punctulatus were identified to be the most commonly used to treat diabetes in the eastern Free State. The purpose of this investigation was to (1) conduct a survey on the herbarium collection of six medicinal plants used to treat diabetes (2) conduct a survey to determine the collecting practices of traditional healers and herbalist and the impact these practices have on the wild populations and (3) to conduct an ecological survey to determine the current population trends of the six selected plants in their natural habitats. A total of six herbaria (Uniqwa Herbarium, Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve Herbarium, Geo-Potts Herbarium, National Museum Herbarium, Free State National Botanical Garden Herbarium and Bews Herbarium) were surveyed and there were only a few specimen of the studied plants found in four surveyed herbaria. The collection labels generally lacked information on the precise location, distribution and frequency of occurrence, and most of them were very old. The present study showed that most of the traditional medicine practitioners were women with a low education level and they had little appreciation of the impact of their activities on wild populations of the medicinal plants. The indiscriminate collecting practices posed a serious extinction threat to the plants used in traditional medicine. The ecological survey identified two species Eriocephalus punctulatus and Morella serrata as potentially threatened within the study area. Herbaria should strive to become aligned with the "13-point strategy to meet conservation challenges" and this would make integral part of conservation strategies. Extensive study to determine the extent of the threat to the two identified species needs to be undertaken and their status on the Red Data List need to be revised. Traditional medicine practitioners (healers, herbalists and commercial gatherers) need to be informed about sustainable usage of natural resources and about environmental legislation regarding their business. Strong working relationships between government (Department of Environmental Affairs), Universities, South African National Parks and traditional medicine practitioners need to be established to protect the environment. Failure to use medicinal plants in sustainable way will have a negative impact on both the biodiversity and to the general health of the population.