By Dave Cole
Devil’s claw, known for its effective treatment of arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, probably has one of the oldest histories in the commercialisation of any indigenous natural plant product in Namibia, starting in the 1960s.
Found almost throughout Namibia, with the exception of the arid west, devil’s claw is an important INP in terms of the number of the poorest of the poor earning much-needed supplementary cash income by being involved in its harvesting and trade. It is also important because of the volumes traded and the significant export earnings that Namibia accrues, which depending on volume, are estimated to be in the region of N$20-30 million per annum over the last five years.
Harpagophytum, more commonly known as devil’s claw, comprises two species: H. procumbens and H. zeyheri. The plant is a geophyte with a main taproot from which secondary or storage tubers extend, and it is these secondary storage tubers, which contain the highest concentrations of secondary compounds, including harpagoside, that are harvested for their analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Devil’s claw derives its name from the fruiting body, which has sharp, re-curved hooks protruding off the fruit, which assist in seed dispersal by attaching themselves to almost anything, including animal pelts. Interestingly many of the local names for devil’s claw (gamagu in Damara, makakata in Oshindonga, omalyata in Oshikwanyama, otjihangatene in Oshiherero and malamatwa in Silozi) in Namibia refer to this feature. The name devil’s claw is a direct translation from the German name Teufelskralle whereas the English name for the plant is actually grapple plant.
The indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa, mainly the San, have made use of the plant’s tubers for medicinal purposes for centuries. Ethno-medicinal uses have been recorded mostly for digestive disorders, fever, sores, ulcers and boils, and as an analgesic. Today, devil’s claw is widely used in rural communities, mostly as a general health tonic, an analgesic and a treatment for digestive disorders.
Although the plants were first collected and described by European scientists in 1822, the medicinal properties of devil’s claw were only ‘discovered’ in Namibia in 1907 by GH Mehnert, as a result of his access to the knowledge of the indigenous Khoi and San people. This early bio-prospector exported some dried devil’s claw tubers to Germany, where they were first studied by B. Zorn at the University of Jena in the 1950s,whereafter the medicinal value of devil’s claw for the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and other ailments of this nature began to be recognised by ‘western medicine’. In 1962, the Namibian company Harpago (Pty) Ltd started exporting devil’s claw-tubers in larger quantities to the German company Erwin Hagen Naturheilmittel GmbH.
Regulations and conservation
In Namibia, devil’s claw was listed in 1977 as a protected species by the former Ministry of Environment and Tourism under the Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1975 and, as a result, permits were required for harvesting, trade and export. This system was introduced due to increased trade and the subsequent concerns regarding the conservation status of the species. Devil’s claw is protected through similar legislation in both Botswana and South Africa and, more recently, Zambia but not in Angola.
However, a Namibian study in 1986 established that only 10% of the harvested devil’s claw was being harvested with a valid permit, and the permit system for harvesting, possession and transportation of devil’s claw was subsequently discontinued, as it could not be effectively implemented. Permits thereafter continued to be required only for the export of devil’s claw and were mainly intended as a way to monitor exports – no quotas or other limitations were imposed.
As with many other indigenous plant products, ensuring consistent and increasing supply are not features that escape devil’s claw. Commercial cultivation is now possible, and has been tested in both Namibia and South Africa. To date, however, the continued availability and the lower prices paid for wild harvested devil’s claw has meant that only limited production has taken place. There has been considerable debate regarding the possibility of the supply of commercially cultivated devil’s claw having a negative impact on harvesters of the wild product. In this respect, however, two scenarios can be considered, one which sees cultivation marginalising rural harvesters, the other benefiting them.
Namibia is by far the largest supplier of devil’s claw in the world, providing at least 90% or more of the product used worldwide, although more recently significant quantities originating from Angola and Zambia have been reported. Other range States such as Botswana and South Africa also export, but to date in smaller quantities. However, records (where they exist) of production from all the other range States indicate some inconsistency attributable to numerous problems that occur in managing a harvesting permit system, including bypassing the system and under-reporting even where a permitting system is in place.
The harvesting and trade of devil’s claw has come a long way since the 1960s. The fact that it is still in reasonably good shape is testament to the resilience and determination of those who continue to be involved in the trade. Current demand worldwide appears to be stable and should continue to be so considering the proven efficacy of devil’s claw in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism.
Significant progress in many areas has also been made in terms of resource management, sustainable harvesting and trade. With respect to policy and regulation, Namibia in 2010 amended its policy on devil’s claw to strengthen the monitoring of various aspects of the trade with particular emphasis on ensuring traceability throughout the supply chain. Based on the Namibian policy Zambia also introduced and promulgated legislation in 2013 that is aimed at improving resource management, harvesting and trade.