Hoodia - Hardy Plant of the Desert
The Hoodia, a true desert bloom crowned in the springtime by large disc-shaped crimson flowers, has been the focus of much attention over the years, not for its ability to store moisture and thrive in arid areas or for its exquisite blooms but rather for its properties as an appetite suppressant. During the last decade it has been universally acknowledged that the San/Bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, own the rights to the indigenous knowledge of the plant, but that has not always been the case.
The plant was used by the San for millennia as an appetite suppressant and thirst quencher, long before it was sought after in the western world in the battle against obesity. It was also used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes and as a cure for abdominal cramps, haemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion and hypertension. Hoodia has been used traditionally for its medicinal properties by the Hai║om, !Xun, Khwe, Anikhwe (Northern Botswana) and Khomani (northwestern South Africa) groups, and its local names include bobbejaanghaap, bergghaap, bitterghaap, bokhorings and Khobab.
The species of most interest in the family Apocynaceae for its appetite-suppressing qualities is Hoodia gordonii found predominantly in Namibia and South Africa, more specifically in the northeastern part of the Western Cape, the north and northwestern regions of the Northern Cape, and in southern Namibia.
The spiny-stemmed succulent grows on gravel or shale plains, Kalahari sands, on dry stony slopes and under bushes from which its gains a certain amount of protection. It can tolerate temperatures exceeding 40˚C and as low as -4˚C.
Incredibly, a single plant can have as many as fifty branches growing from its base, can grow up to a metre high and weigh as much as thirty kilograms. Although eye-catching, the flowers, referred to as stapeliads with their strong carrion-like odour, are only attractive to its pollinators, flies and blowflies. The seed capsules resemble antelope or goat horns prompting the Afrikaans name bokhorings (buck horns) and comprise drop-shaped seeds with white silky hairs to enable easy dispersal in the wind.
The first Europeans to encounter Hoodia gordonii were Paterson and Colonel RF Gordon, who in December 1778 found specimens in the Upington area. Botanist Francis Masson recorded the use of Stapelia gordonii on his visits to the Cape around the same period. This plant was later transferred into the Hoodia genus, named after the dedicated succulent grower, Van Hood.
Hoodia is a protected plant in Namibia and a permit is required from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to cultivate or harvest, relocate or trade in the plant. It is also listed on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), Appendix 2, regulating international trade. The plant is threatened by habitat loss, invasive aliens, illegal harvesting and climatic conditions.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa began to include Hoodia in its projects as early as 1963 and in 1995 filed an application to patent the use of the active components (it had isolated the active compound P57) responsible for appetite suppression. CSIR later signed licensing agreements with UK pharmaceutical company Phytopharm that in turn sub-licensed the rights.
In June 2001, a South African-based NGO, Biowatch South Africa, with assistance from the international NGO, Action Aid, alerted the foreign media to the fact that the San had not been involved in the development or commercialisation of the Hoodia products, leading CSIR to enter into negotiations with the San. The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), the South African San Council and the San Institute of South Africa (SASI) represented the San in the negotiations. This culminated in the CSIR and the South African San Council signing a benefit-sharing agreement in March 2003, with the San receiving a percentage of the royalties.
The San Trust, formally named the San Hoodia Benefit Sharing Trust, was registered in August 2004. San delegates from the southern African countries agreed that 75 percent of all Trust income would be equally distributed to the constituted San Councils of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
The bottles of weight-loss products lining pharmacy shelves bear little resemblance to the hardy desert plant that survives in the Namib Desert, its soft sensual bloom belying its tough existence, and its recent history is far removed from the time when the San still roamed the southern sands of Africa living freely off the land.