The impending extinction of dingetegna plant in Ethiopia
By Fekadu Fullas, Ph.D.
November 28, 2012
Traditional medicine, particularly herbal medicine is no longer old wives’ tales. It has gone mainstream in several European countries, such as Germany, where it is considered as an option on a par with modern medicine. In most Third World countries, herbal medicine is not an alternative, but rather the primary treatment option available to the rural populace. In many parts of the world, important medicinal plants are endangered due to unplanned overuse without putting in place good conservation measures.
The medicinal plant dingetegna (Taverniera abyssinica) used to be one of the most well-known traditional remedies in Ethiopia. This endemic all-Ethiopian plant had been used medicinally for several decades. Its therapeutic benefits were known to the public at large, especially in big towns, such as Addis Ababa. The sight of peddlers roaming around open markets in Addis Ababa and elsewhere to sell dingetegna was common. The roots were sold in tiny bundles and chewed by users at the onset of illness symptoms. However, it appears that this herbal remedy is no more found in these markets. It is also estimated that it may have disappeared from its natural habitats in Shoa and Tigrai, where the plant was originally discovered and botanically identified. Considering its long-time utility as a medicinal plant in Ethiopia, it is indeed sad to see that it is nearing extinction, if not already extinct. At the heart of this problem lies the fact that one had to uproot the whole plant to get to the roots, which meant loss of one plant during a single collection. It is not then hard to imagine that in an unmanaged and uncontrolled environment how such an exercise could endanger the continuity, nay the survival, of a useful plant such as dingetegna to eventually render it extinct. Although there are plant conservation efforts, lack of a comprehensive and adequate medicinal plants conservation program in Ethiopia is a major contributory factor for threatened and endangered medicinal plant species. It is not clear, however, at this point whether dingetegna has for certain totally gone extinct.
Early on, dingetegna attracted the attention of chemists at Addis Ababa University. Led by Professor Ermias Dagne, the chemistry of the plant was investigated, and a number of compounds known as flavonoids were isolated. Following the chemical work, the investigators were further interested in determining the biological basis for the therapeutic attributes of the plant. They were able to show that the roots had indeed fever-reducing and stomach acid-relieving effects when tested in experimental rats. This important finding confirmed the basis for the traditional use of this plant for stomach pain and fever, which were generally referred to as sudden illness symptoms (dingetegna). Obviously, the plant derived its local name from its properties against these sudden symptoms.
Ethiopia is endowed with a range of medicinal plants that could form a strong foundation for modern drug development. However, conservation of these plants in their natural habitats and/or in botanical gardens is a prerequisite for ensuring the perpetuation of species of immense potential medicinal and economic importance.
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