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A dwindling supply of wild medicinal plants is threatening South Africa's traditional medicine industry, according to new research.

In a paper published by the nongovernmental organisation Health Systems Trust this month (4 December), researchers found that the demand for traditional medicine is higher than ever — stimulated by HIV/AIDS, unemployment and rapid urbanisation.

"Many customers report that they choose to use traditional healers as they feel the treatment is more holistic than western medicine," the authors write. They go on to explain that it is this dual "spiritual and physiological treatment" that customers appreciate.

South Africa's traditional medicine industry is estimated to be worth 2.9 billion rand (around US$415 million) — 5.6 per cent of the country's health budget.

The researchers say that at least 133,000 households are dependent on the trade in medicinal plants. The majority of those harvesting the plants are rural women who depend on money they make from selling the plants to feed their families.

At risk are 550 plant species. At least 86 per cent of the plant species harvested will result in the death of the entire plant. African Wild Ginger, for example, is now reportedly extinct in the wild.

The authors make practical suggestions on how a crisis can be averted. Most obvious is developing communication between all players, followed by the development of a strategic vision for the industry.

They also suggest incentives that promote the development of technology in harvesting, farming, storage, packaging, dosage and treatment.

Sazi Mhlongo, chairman of the National Professional Association of Traditional Healers in South Africa, told SciDev.Net, that traditional healers understood the issues surrounding the sustainability of medicinal plants and were planting what they needed.

"We are holding meetings with role players to discuss the building of warehouses in Johannesburg and Durban where herbs can be packaged and sold on to traditional healers," says Mhlongo. This way, he says, plant gatherers could also be told when a certain herb was not needed to avoid waste.

"There are also plans to register traditional healers and plant gatherers to ensure better control," he adds.

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