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Southern African plants for animal health

When animals in southern Africa are sick, often the first place their caretakers look for help is from native plants. That's what makes understanding and conserving these plants so important, say a group of Kansas State University researchers.

"Our idea is to bridge the disciplines of anthropology, veterinary medicine and ecological conservation," said Ronette Gehring, assistant professor of clinical sciences at K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Gehring is working with fellow veterinarian Deon van der Merwe, K-State assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, to better understand how farmers and other people in southern Africa use native plants for animal health.

According to Gehring, people in southern Africa rely on native plants for the health of food animals like cattle, goats, sheep and chickens, as well as for dogs, which are popular as pets. "In the US, medicinal plants aren't used as much for animals," Gehring said. "In developing countries, they are very much being used as primary care."

The researchers found 18 areas in southern Africa where native plants are documented and being used for animal health. This includes 506 herbal remedies, although these don't come from 506 unique plants. These remedies are documented being used for 81 symptoms, including intestinal parasites, wounds, diarrhoea, etc.

"The vast majority of these 506 remedies use roots, leaves and bark, if not the whole plant," Gehring said. "This is potentially destructive to the plant, which is a concern from a conservation standpoint." Gehring said it's also important for the researchers to understand more about the context in which these remedies are used.

"These remedies are often used by farmers rather than healers and other health care providers for whom the treatment may be more secretive," Gehring said. "Farmers may be more open about their knowledge."

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