A new guide to traditional plant-based medicines for livestock in East Africa

Ethiopian farmer with her livestock_sm

Ethiopian farmer with her livestock. Photo: Najma Dharani / World Agroforestry Centre

A wide range of medicinal plants are used to treat diseases and health conditions in animals. A new manual documents these ethnoveterinary practices in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and describes 53 of the plants used. It looks at how agroforestry can help preserve some of these important and vulnerable medicinal species.

For tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, livestock provide a source of income and food. When animals get sick or injured, pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and other farmers generally rely on a long-held tradition of ethnoveterinary medicine.

“Hundreds of plant species are used by livestock keepers in sub-Saharan Africa to treat a wide range of ailments,” outlines Najma Dharani, lead author of the manual and consultant research scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre as well as senior lecturer at Pwani University-Kilifi, Kenya. “They generally don’t have access to or can’t afford ‘modern’ veterinary medicines and approaches.”

book cover“We have compiled this manual to help those using traditional practices and others who want to understand them better, such as scientists interested in researching the effectiveness and transferability of ethnoveterinary medicine,” explains Dharani.

For example, to treat East Coast Fever, a devastating disease in cattle that is transmitted by the brown ear tick, the manual explains how leaves and fruit of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) can be crushed, added to a saltlick and given to infected animals. Alternatively, leaves and roots of Vernonia amygdalina or Vernonia auriculifera trees or Sesbania sesban can be crushed and boiled and used as a drench. The bark of Warbugia ugandensis can also be used as a drench.

Tsetse flies, which cause painful bites that irritate, suck blood, prevent livestock from feeding and spread sleeping sickness, can be treated with fresh seed from the Azadirachta indica tree. The kernels are removed and crushed to extract the oil which is then rubbed on the animal’s skin. Similarly, leaves of Sesbania sesban can be pounded with water and rubbed onto the animal’s body.

Mild infections of Newcastle disease, a major killer of poultry, can be treated by using leaves of Aloe secundiflora or Aloe vera or the seeds of Capsicum frutescens. These are soaked in water and the water is then given to affected birds.

Dharani acknowledges that the effectiveness of many of the plant treatments described in the manual may not have been tested in formal trials and there is certainly more work to be done in this area. However, she says a large body of knowledge within communities supports their use. In the case of some indigenous plants, this has been built up over a number of centuries.

In the 6 years it took to compile the manual, Dharani spent considerable time among communities who use the practices described as well as researching existing written materials. She found instances of where modern and traditional practices are being employed in tandem.

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Pastoralists use juice from the fruits of Solanum aculeastrum to treat wounds in cattle caused by lumpy wool disease. Photo: Najma Dharani / World Agroforestry Centre

For example, to treat dermatophilosis (also known as streptothricosis or lumpy wool), a serious bacterial disease in cattle, pastoralists apply juice from the fruit of Solanum aculeastrum on bleeding open wounds but if this does not heal the wound, they use an antibiotic cream.

Published by the World Agroforestry Centre, Traditional ethnoveterinary medicine in East Africa: a manual on the use of medicinal plants describes animal conditions and how to diagnose, prevent, control and treat them. It includes information on 53 different plant species (indigenous as well as widely cultivated exotics) and the animal conditions they are used to treat or control. These 2 sections are conveniently linked through an appendix.

The manual also looks at common methods for administering plant-based treatments and provides detail on the active compounds found in medicinal plants. The concentration of these compounds can vary depending on the plant part, growth stage, the time of harvest and the handling methods used during collection and subsequent storage.

Procedures for collecting and storing medicinal plants are outlined in the manual, particularly to ensure the chemical compounds needed for therapeutic activity are maintained as effectively as possible.

The manual emphasizes that “where possible, plant parts should be harvested in a manner that does not kill the plant.” However, if destruction of the plant cannot be avoided, “some plants in a location should be left unharvested” so they can then seed and maintain the population.

Ramni Jamnadass, head of research into Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery with the World Agroforestry Centre, explains that some medicinal plants in East Africa are extremely vulnerable to over-harvesting for medicinal and other uses.

“One option to protect these species for ethnoveterinary practices and to maintain the livelihoods of traditional herbalists is through on-farm cultivation,” says Ramni.

Warburgia ugandensis is one medicinal species cultivated on farms. Photo: Najma Dharani / World Agroforestry Centre

This is successfully being done in East Africa for medicinal trees such as the indigenous Aloe species, Prunus africana, used to treat redwater fever and Warburgia ugandensis, used to treat a range of conditions, including anaplasmosis, redwater fever, contagious pleuropneumonia, East Coast fever, heartwater and sleeping sickness.

“We need more efforts to encourage cultivation with local communities,” stresses Ramni.

The manual is a collaborative work of the World Agroforestry Centre and the Kenyan Ministry of Livestock Development.

Download the manual:

Dharani N., Yenesew A., Aynekulu E., Tuei B. and Jamnadass R. 2015. Traditional ethnoveterinary medicine in East Africa : a manual on the use of medicinal plants. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre.

For more information on most of the plants listed in the manual, see the Agroforestree Database

For information on where to obtain seed for many of the plants listed, see the Tree Seed Suppliers Directory



Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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