It is important to note that devil's claw is a protected plant in all three countries where it grows, (South Africa, Botswana and Namibia) or is about to be so. This means that it is illegal to dig it up or harvest it, even one plant, without a permit from the various departments of nature conservation.
The three countries involved in the devil's claw trade are Namibia, South Africa and Botswana. In Namibia, the main exporting country, permits are required to harvest, transport, possess and export devil's claw. In Botswana it is also a protected plant and permits are needed for harvesting, valid for only three months. There are set limits on quantities, supposedly based on assessments of the resource. Permits are also needed to transfer and export devil's claw. In South Africa, Harpagophytum procumbens is listed as a protected plant for the Northern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and part of North-West, but it is not specifically protected elsewhere. A national list of protected plants is being drawn up, including devil's claw, but it has not yet been published.
In North-West, the only province where this herb is collected for trade, a management system is in place including permits and harvest controls. Only registered harvesters are allowed to collect wild plants. They have to have a current identification card, given each year only after training in sustainable harvesting (this means collecting only secondary tubers, replanting or leaving the primary root in place, and taking from only one quadrant of an area per year to allow for recovery).
Populations and recovery rates are monitored. In Northern Cape, permits are needed to do anything with this plant, including growing it and transporting it across provincial borders.
Concern for the impact harvesting might be having on the wild populations, and hence for the sustainability of the trade, led to a suggestion in 2002 for listing Harpagophytum procumbens in CITES Appendix II. Here harvesting such plants is restricted. This was withdrawn because of lack of information and the perception that such a listing would impact badly on the many impoverished people who do all the collecting. Various studies have now been published about Harpagophytum and its trade, with suggestions for future policy, such as Hachfeld (2003) and Raimondo et al. (2005).
Many factors have to be taken into account in assessing the status of devil's claw. It cannot be regarded as rare and needing concern as it has high numbers and a wide distribution. However, Hachfeld (2003) noted that a plant's ability to withstand harvesting is also important. Devil's claw lives in dry areas so all life-processes will tend to be slow. The parts harvested are roots, not annually produced stems or flowers, so it can be expected to have low resistance to over-collection. Here there is need for some concern. Hachfeld concluded that more research is needed before a long-term management system can be set up to keep this plant as a sustainable resource. In Namibia today, it is regarded as not threatened but locally there are areas, some large, where there has been incorrect and over-harvesting. These are mostly in places that were once well supplied with plants. Regeneration is unlikely and harvesters will have to use areas less well supplied. It is doubtful if this will be economically viable.
Unlike in Namibia, in South Africa, Raimondo et al. (2005) found the management of the trade in devil's claw has led to harvesting that is mostly sustainable. They concluded that in South Africa the species as a whole is not being threatened by harvesting. On average 70% of plants survive harvesting and the species has a highly persistent seed bank. They found, however, that harvesting is having a negative impact on some local populations. Also, unlicensed collectors are doing some harvesting and some exports are not being recorded. They recommended that harvesting should be restricted to the high resource areas of the eastern part of Northern Cape and the communal part of North-West. Training, harvest controls and monitoring of exports should continue or be improved. Most importantly, devil's claw should be protected nationally so all the provinces can manage it uniformly.
Red Data Lists have been drawn up for various countries in southern Africa. These categorize plants by their biological status as endangered or threatened and the degree to which they are so. In South Africa, Victor et al. (in prep.) regard the conservation status of the subsp. procumbens as of 'least concern' (= 'lower risk' in older literature). In Namibia, the category assigned to it was 'lower risk, conservation dependent' (Golding 2002) but it does not appear in the latest Red Data List (Loots 2005). In Botswana, it is regarded as 'low risk, near threatened' (Golding 2002), which indicates more concern. These assessments do not look at local levels and only current levels of harvesting are regarded. If the demand increases, the plants' status will have to be re-assessed, especially if cultivation projects are not successful.
Various attempts are being made to cultivate devil's claw but as yet they are still experimental. Tissue culture and cuttings have been tried but the little plants proved very sensitive to the harsh conditions in the wild. The plants also didn't make a primary tuber. They could be harvested only once or only partially. There is also a problem with the low rate of seed germination.
One experiment was to grow the plants from seed on a community basis, but it proved too labour intensive and uneconomic. It is not yet known whether cultivated plants will be as efficacious as the hard-grown wild plants. Even if farming problems are resolved, the volume of trade may not be sufficient to support cultivation. The socio-economic factor needs to be regarded, for cultivation would probably cut out the marginalized collectors whose only source of livelihood is devil's claw. The trend now seems to be to continue wild collecting but to ensure it is sustainable.
More about Harpagophytum procumbens