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Geographic 3 Aug 07
"Sex Tree," Other Medicinal Plants Near Extinction in Uganda
Alexis Okeowo in Mabira Forest Reserve, Uganda for National Geographic News
A short, scrawny bush found deep in Uganda's rain forest is rapidly approaching extinction as poachers rush to harvest it for its purported aphrodisiac properties, scientists say.
The so-called sex tree, Citropsis articulata, is quickly disappearing from Uganda's Mabira Forest Reserve, one of the country's last remaining rain forests, because its roots are believed to cure impotence, experts said last week a symposium in Kampala.
In addition to the sex tree, other medicinal plant species such as Prunus africana, a tree commonly used to treat malaria and some forms of cancer, are also being depleted, said Mauda Kamatenesi, a botanist at Uganda's Makarere University.
"In a few years many medicinal plants will be very scarce in Ugandan forests," Kamatenesi said.
Loss of the plants would not only do irreversible damage to the rain forest, she said, but it would also deprive scientists of the opportunity to the study the plants' possible medicinal properties.
"The [sex] tree may have other medicinal values apart from treating sexual impotence, and we are losing out if we let these plants go extinct without doing more research," Kamatenesi said. "The people say that the medicines work."
The plants' extinction would also take a toll on local Ugandans who have been using the trees as herbal cures for generations.
Ibrahim Senfuma, a bird-hunting guide who lives near the forest reserve, said he and his neighbors often take the Pronus africana plant to boost immunity and Citropsis articulata to enhance sex drive. The leaves and roots of the plants are chewed or boiled for tea, he explained.
"If these plants are lost, it would be a burden," Senfuma said. "The forest caters to many people."
The depletion of medicinal plants is not the only threat the Mabira forest is facing.
More than a quarter of the rain forest is in danger of being cleared in order to make way for a sugarcane plantation, if a new government plan is approved.
Last year President Yoweri Museveni ordered a study into the feasibility of clearing 17 ,000 acres (7,000 hectares) of the forest after a sugarcane grower applied to the government to expand its operations.
Museveni's action angered officials at the National Forestry Authority (NFA)—the agency that oversees the forest reserve—as well as Mabira residents and other figures in Museveni's government.
Since last autumn there have been a number of protests against the proposed expansion, including a violent rally this March that resulted in three deaths.
Residents told National Geographic News that the forest provides livelihoods, food, and shelter for the surrounding communities.
"If they chop down all the trees, where will we get our medicine?" asked Faziira Nakalama, a domestic worker who lives near the forest.
"If the forest is cut down, we would lose access to many things we need," added Henry Lubega, a construction worker.
Museveni's administration has countered that jobs created by the sugar plantation would outweigh losses caused by the clearing of forest land.
"Is Uganda going to depend on firewood forever?" Museveni's press secretary, Tamale Mirundi, said to National Geographic News, in reference to the standard of living.
Many investors are interested in developing Uganda, he said, and it would be a mistake not to take advantage of an opportunity to modernize the country.
"It is a question of utilizing resources," Mirundi said.
Sustainable Forest Use
A recent study on the proposed Mabira clearing, conducted by the NFA and commissioned by Museveni, concluded that its ecological and economic losses would be severe.
The report released last fall found that the plan would endanger rare trees and birds in the 74,000-acre (30,000-hectare) forest. Nine species found only in Mabira would face extinction, including the tit hylia bird, six butterflies, a type of moth, and a shrub traditionally used to treat malaria.
The plan could also result in lost revenue from logging and eco-tourism, the main source of tourist revenue in Uganda, the report said. Meanwhile, officials in charge of tourism at Mabira said that they are encouraging nearby residents to limit their use of the disappearing medicinal plants.
"Our job is to teach people about sustainable forest use," said Judith Ahebwa, manager of the Mabira Ecotourism Centre. Plants such as the sex tree are being uprooted completely, she said, which poses a major problem because the species grow slowly. Residents may have started listening.
In the middle of a grove of trees collecting, an elderly Ugandan named Lasu Faru said that he no longer harvests his firewood from the trees and instead takes what's fallen to the ground.
"I use the dry firewood," Faru said, "because I don't want to cut down any more trees."
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