Bark stripping is the illegal harvesting of tree bark for private use by individuals. Tree bark has been used in traditional medicines and rituals for centuries in many parts of Africa and the rest of the world as well. It is widely used in South Africa by traditional healers in medicines and potions ("muti").
Scientific studies have shown that most tree bark, especially near the base of the tree, has a low concentration of active ingredients. The efficacy of tree bark as a natural medicine is highly debatable.
The function of tree bark is to protect the internal energy transport systems of the tree. These internal systems are responsible for the transport of nutrients and water between the leaves and roots. Once the bark is removed, the trunk starts to dry out and then rot, the tree can no longer feed itself properly and will begin to die.
Removal of even a vertical strip of bark will harm the tree. Ring barking (also called girdling) is when the bark is removed from the entire circumference of the tree. Ring barking will almost certainly kill the tree.
The current situation in Newlands Forest is one of independent harvesters coming into the forest and illegally stripping the bark from trees and then selling it as a commodity to traditional healers and other end-users. Given the fact that less then 0.5% of South Africa is covered by forest, it is probable that the strippers are harvesting and then transporting the bark to other parts of the country as well.
It is illegal to remove or harvest any plant or tree (or part thereof) from any national park or nature reserve in South Africa.
Newlands Forest is part of Table Mountain National Park and is strictly protected by the same laws that govern all the national parks in South Africa.
We do not currently have an accurate figure for the number of trees in Newlands Forest that have been stripped, but we estimate the number to be in the thousands. The practice has been ongoing for at least 20 years but has recently increased.
Bark stripping is a complex issue. Certainly, people have the right to practice traditional beliefs. And historically, when forests were widespread and people were few, this was probably a sustainable practice, along with the harvesting of other products from the forest. But the situation today is one of tiny pockets of remaining forest and an ever-increasing number of people. Worldwide, the future of humanity depends on communities ability to adapt to the new realities of a world that looks dramatically different to what it did a generation ago. We believe that bark stripping is not sustainable and the damage to the last remaining pockets of indigenous forest is robbing future generations of an irreplaceable asset.
We believe the way forward is through a combination of education and immediate and urgent action to try and save the few remaining pockets of indigenous forest on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.