Soaring demand from Ugandan men seeking to restore their sexual potency is driving a species of tree known as the Omuboro to extinction.

"It [the tree] is like a natural Viagra," said Hannington Oryem-Orida, a professor of botany at Makerere University. "Because of its enormous medicinal properties, the tree is being harvested faster than it can reproduce, thus threatening its long-term survival."

The "sex tree", or Citropsis articulata, is popular among Ugandans for its aphrodisiac properties, said Professor Oryem-Orida, who was part of the team that carried out a research study on medicinal plants in Mabira Forest, one of Uganda’s most important natural forests. The results of the study were published by both the Uganda Journal in 2005 and the African Academy of Sciences in 2002. Researchers spent months in Mabira forest documenting medicinal plants commonly used in the treatment of various ailments.

The Omuboro grows naturally in tropical forests where locals uproot it to extract the roots, its most valuable part. "Locals strip the tree of all its roots, leaving it with no chance of survival," said Professor Oryem-Orida. "It is hard to recover lost stock because of its slow growth." The roots are either chewed while fresh or dried and pounded into powder, which is then mixed with water to form an aphrodisiac concoction. Although there have not been any chemical tests by the National Chemotherapeutics Laboratory to determine the effectiveness of the aphrodisiac, local people maintain that they have been using the extraction for ages to boost their sexual prowess. "I take it whenever I feel that my energies have gone down," said Edward Katumba, a resident of the area.

But scientists fear that the tree’s medicinal benefits, other than treating sexual impotence, may be lost if the stock is depleted too quickly.

The tree is just one of many in Africa’s tropical forests that are threatened because of their perceived medicinal properties. About 75 per cent of Ugandans live in rural areas, where natural medicine is the most important form of treating ailments.

Another tree, Prunus africana, locally known as Omulondo, is also facing extinction because it is used to treat prostate cancer. Poor harvesting methods, coupled with slow growth and limited habitats, are the reasons that scientists say are responsible for the ever-increasing depletion of natural medicine from Uganda’s forests.

Mabira Forest is considered one of Africa’s most important sites for plant and bird biodiversity, and has been recovering from degradation since illegal settlements, timber and charcoal harvesting and medicinal plant extraction was officially halted at the end of the 1980s. Environmentalists are now fighting to prevent a threatened sell-off by the state of a quarter of the forest reserve to private investors for sugar-cane ethanol cultivation. The forest is an important draw for tourists and also acts as a vital water catchment resource.

Scientists gathered in the region this week for a symposium on the discovery of natural drugs in the forest. They were told of the extent of medicinal plant trafficking by both traditional African herbalists and commercial drug companies.

Via: The Independant