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Prunus Africana, the wonder anti-cancer tree in Uganda

PRUNUS africana trees in Kibale and Mt. Rwenzori national parks have been discovered to have the highest concentration of the active ingredients needed for treating prostate cancer and other related health problems compared to other tree species in the country.

This is a follow up on Prunus africana’s earlier research carried out by National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI) in collaboration with International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF).

The genetic diversity for the different tree populations have also been found to vary between the different populations.
There was need to follow up on the above findings and study further the variations in chemical compositions of the prunus bark and genetic diversity with a view to establishing a prunus mother garden with superior genotypes that has higher genetic diversity and higher concentration of active ingredients for providing farmers with superior planting stock.

There was a regional project (involving seven prunus range countries in Africa including Uganda) doing research on the same species that was ready to provide some funding to the tune of sh35m ($12,000).

The tree is almost all over Uganda, but highest concentrations are in highland and medium altitude forests, mainly in mountainous parts of Uganda in the western, southwestern regions and on Mt. Elgon.

So far with collaboration from NaFORRI, Cudwell Industries has established a mother garden at the district head quarters in Mukono. This second phase of establishing the mother garden has not been funded.

The prunus trade in which NaFORRI is involved in conjunction with Cudwell Industries, Forestry Sector Support Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation, has benefitted a number of farmers, who sell Prunus bark from trees on their land. NaFORRI’s work is mainly research and providing technical advice.

Prunus africana is used by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture a drug used in treating prostrate problems among elderly men. Uganda’s dried bark is exported to France to make a drug called TADENAN.

Prunus africana was once well-distributed throughout Africa, from Ethiopia to South Africa and from the west coast to the island of Madagascar. Since its medicinal properties became widely known, it has been ruthlessly harvested.

African cherry (Prunus Africana) is also known as Entasesa, Ngwabuzito (Luganda); Engote in Rutoro; mueri, mkomahoya or kiburraburra (Kiswahili) and red stinkwood, iron wood or bitter Almond(in English).
The biggest threat to the tree is unsustainable harvesting of bark such as splitting the bark of the entire tree at once, which leads to death.
Debarking begins from one-metre from the ground level to the first branch of the tree.
Half of the bark is split upright using a machete or panga, leaving the other half side to supply water to the upper branches and leaves.
After debarking, smear the debarked side with a mixture of soil and cow dung. The mixture helps to preserve the debarked side from insect attacks like the termites.
Thereafter, the half side that was not debarked is split after four years. Then the initial debarked side is split again after nine years. If each tree is well looked after, it can be debarked six or seven times. Prunus africana can last more than 80 years.
An acre of land can accommodate a Prunus africana plant population of 450 trees with a spacing of 10 metres apart. The seedling takes 14 years to reach commercial harvestable size of 30cm diametre.

Trees especially found within and along wetlands make it up to 150cm diametre. The 30cm debarked tree on average yields 30kgs of dry bark per harvest.

Prunus africana is an evergreen tree, ranging between 10 to 36 metres height, with a stem diameter of 1 metre; bark blackish-brown and rugged; branch-lets dotted with breathing spots, brown and corky.

In its area of natural distribution, the tree peaks flowering between November and February. Trees produce flowers with male and female parts. Insects pollinate the tree, and fruits, which are highly relished and dispersed by birds and monkeys, develop within four to six months.

The tree can also be used in charcoal and timber production, though it not popular due to the heavy weight of its timber. Timber from prunus africana is often used in the mining industry as pit-props; railway slippers in the railway industry and for bridge and other heavy duty construction work.

Prunus africana is protected by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and its export has to be subject to a CITES export permit to protect the tree from depletion.
Do not debark the tree to produce bark for export before you are advised on how, where and the conditions you can be allowed to export and sell the bark.

Given the destruction that continues in the natural populations of Prunus, growing this endangered species is good for conservation. It is probably a smart personal health insurance policy.

As told to John Kasozi. Hafashimana is a senior research officer (ecologist/ conservationist) with National Agricultural Research Organisation, National Forestry Resources Research Institute.

The New Vision Newspaper

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