Forest Elephant's Foot

Scientific Name
Dioscorea sylvatica Eckl.
Higher Classification
Common Names
Forest Elephant's Foot (e)
National Status
Status and Criteria
Vulnerable A2cd
Assessment Date
V.L. Williams, D. Raimondo, N.R. Crouch, A.B. Cunningham, C.R. Scott-Shaw, M. Lötter & A.M. Ngwenya
There was a large population decline from 1955-1960 as a result of indiscriminate commercial harvesting for diosgenin, a substance that was used to manufacture cortisone and other steroid hormones. Exploitation of tubers for the local medicinal plant trade is ongoing, and is preventing recovery. The overall decline is estimated to be above 30% over the past 90 years (generation length estimated to be 30 years).
Not endemic to South Africa
Provincial distribution
Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
This species is widely distributed in South Africa where it is found in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province. It also occurs in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Habitat and Ecology
Major system
Major habitats
Northern Mistbelt Forest, Northern Escarpment Dolomite Grassland, Leolo Summit Sourveld, KaNgwane Montane Grassland, Wakkerstroom Montane Grassland, Rand Highveld Grassland, Northern Drakensberg Highland Grassland, Fish Valley Thicket, Scarp Forest, Long Tom Pass Montane Grassland, Southern Mistbelt Forest, Northern Afrotemperate Forest, Algoa Sandstone Fynbos, Pondoland-Ugu Sandstone Coastal Sourveld, Maputaland Coastal Belt, Albany Alluvial Vegetation, Sundays Mesic Thicket, Northern Coastal Forest, Soutpansberg Mountain Bushveld, KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld, Thukela Thornveld, Tzaneen Sour Bushveld, Granite Lowveld, Western Maputaland Clay Bushveld, Malelane Mountain Bushveld, Pretoriuskop Sour Bushveld, Soutpansberg Summit Sourveld, Polokwane Plateau Bushveld, Steenkampsberg Montane Grassland, Springbokvlakte Thornveld, Northern KwaZulu-Natal Moist Grassland, Ithala Quartzite Sourveld, Tsakane Clay Grassland, Soweto Highveld Grassland, Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland, Eastern Valley Bushveld, Sekhukhune Plains Bushveld
Plants grow in wooded and relatively mesic places, such as the moister bushveld areas, coastal bush and wooded mountain kloofs.
During the first half of the 20th century, the commercial production of synthesized active ingredients of pharmaceutical products were not yet far advanced. It was often more economical to derive the necessary chemical constituents from natural products, including wild-harvested plants. It was discovered that Dioscorea sylvatica, and specifically D. sylvatica var. rehmannii, contains high concentrations of diosgenin, a substance that was used to manufacture cortisone and other steroid hormones. Between 1955 and 1959, 3466 tonnes of Dioscorea sylvatica was wild harvested from the former Transvaal province for the commercial production of cortisone. This translates to between 116 000 and 380 000 mature individuals, as whole plants are removed to process the fleshy tuber for diosgenin (Codd 1960). During 1958 alone, 1151 tonnes were harvested. However, during 1959, the amount of plants harvested fell drastically to only 465 tonnes. This was because D. sylvatica wild populations in areas designated for harvesting had become completely depleted, to such an extent that after 1959 wild harvesting was no longer commercially viable (Codd 1960). Attempts were made to grow D. sylvatica in large scale cultivation, however, it proved to be too slow growing, and the use of D. sylvatica in cortisone production was subsequently abandoned (Codd 1960, Rowley 1987). Codd estimated that an area that had been "worked-over" would take at least five years to recover, but the yield would be lower. During the harvesting period (1955-1959), restrictions were in place to try and maintain the sustainability of the harvesting. Harvesting was only allowed on private land by means of a permitting system, and tubers had to be at least 30 cm in diameter. No harvesting was allowed on state-owned or conservation land (Codd 1960). However, how seriously these restrictions were observed, especially the minimum tuber size, is not certain. The total long term effect of this rapid depletion of subpopulations in some areas, as well as what proportion of the total population was removed, is not known. At present, the species is wild harvested for the muthi trade at far lower levels - about 16.3 tonnes per year (approximately 326 50kg-size bags, equivalent to 500-2000 mature individuals) were estimated to be traded in KwaZulu-Natal (Cunningham 1988). Cunningham (1988) also classified the species as 'vulnerable and declining', i.e. a species that is vulnerable to over-exploitation, and the wild populations are subject to localised over-exploitation and appear to be declining outside conserved areas but are represented by populations in strict nature conservation areas. Williams et al. (2007) records D. sylvatica occurring in 60% of muthi shops in 1994 and estimated that 249 bags were sold annually. Additionally, the species was sold by 28% of the Faraday Street market traders in 2001 and the annual quantity purchased by the traders was estimated to be 514 bags. Dold and Cocks (2002) estimated the annual trade in D. sylvatica in the Eastern Cape to be more than 3 tonnes, and indicated that it was heavily traded, vulnerable and becoming scarce in South Africa. Scott-Shaw (1999) said that it was rare in KwaZulu-Natal and becoming very rare where exploitation was heaviest. It has not been nominated through market surveys as among the species that are 'very popular' or 'becoming scarce' (Mander 1998), and observations in the field indicate that it is not extremely scarce, and in contrast to some of the other heavily exploited medicinal species, can still be found in areas relatively close to the markets (D. Styles, pers. comm., 2007). This possibly indicates that the population have made a good recovery since the 1955-1959 commercial harvesting period, and that the harvesting restrictions were effective in preventing the population from declining to such levels that recovery was impossible. However, the field observations of D. Styles were made in KwaZulu-Natal, while the commercial harvesting was mainly concentrated in Mpumalanga and Limpopo (Codd 1960). A comparative survey of subpopulations on privately owned vs. state owned land in these provinces could be useful in attempting to quantify what the long term effect of the harvesting on the population is. During the Medicinal Plant Red List Workshop (14-15/01/2008, SANBI, Durban) (V.L. Williams, D. Raimondo, N.R. Crouch, A.B. Cunningham, R. Scott-Shaw, M. Lötter and M. Ngwenya), the following points were made: a) D. sylvatica is most commonly encountered in protected areas, especially well protected areas (N.R. Crouch); b) it must have been very common in the woodland and savanna of the Tugela River basin, but extreme pressure from pastoral grazing is changing the micro-habitat of the bush (C.R. Scott-Shaw); c) It is always present in the Eastern Cape markets and is very slow growing and rare in the wild. The subpopulations are also small and only seen now and then (A.P. Dold); d) Subpopulations tend to be smaller than in the past (except in the Drakensberg); in thornveld they are sparse and never abundant e.g. 2-3 plants together and then none after that; e) Ongoing pressure from the medicinal plant trade is keeping the population numbers at lower levels.

Cunningham (1993) classified D. sylvatica as "vulnerable and declining" in a preliminary assessment of the threat status of a number of heavily exploited medicinal plants. According to Scott-Shaw (1999) D. sylvatica is becoming very rare in areas where it is heavily exploited. However, according to David Styles (pers. comm. 2007) although whole tubers of this species are frequently seen in the Durban muthi markets, it can still be found with relative ease in the wild, even in places relatively close to Durban such as the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands around Nottingham Road. Cunningham (1993) estimated that about 16.3 tonnes of D. sylvatica are traded in the Durban markets annually. This translates to between 500 and 2000 plants per year, based on Codd's estimate that the average tuber weighs between 9 and 30 kg (Codd 1960). Although this species is highly sought after (Scott-Shaw 1999), Mander (1998), in a detailed study of the KwaZulu-Natal medicinal plant trade, does not include D. sylvatica among the most popular species or species nominated by traders as being in short supply. D. sylvatica has also not been reported to be heavily traded in the Witwatersrand area (Williams et al. 2000).

Population trend
Assessment History
Taxon assessed
Status and Criteria
Citation/Red List version
Dioscorea sylvatica Eckl.VU A2cdRaimondo et al. (2009)
Dioscorea sylvatica Eckl.Lower Risk - Near Threatened Scott-Shaw (1999)

Archibald, E.E.A. 1967. The genus Dioscorea in the Cape Province west of East London. Journal of South African Botany 33:1-46.

Blunden, G., Hardman, R. and Hind, F.J. 1971. The comparative morphology and anatomy of Dioscorea sylvatica Eckl. from Natal and the Transvaal. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 64:431-446.

Burkill, I.H. 1952. Testudinaria as a section of the genus Dioscorea. Journal of South African Botany 18:177-191.

Codd, L.E. 1960. Drugs from wild yams. African Wildlife 14(3):215-234.

Cunningham, A.B. 1988. An investigation of the herbal medicine trade in Natal/KwaZulu. Investigational Report No. 29. Institute of Natural Resources, Pietermaritzburg.

Cunningham, A.B. 1993. African medicinal plants: setting priorities at the interface between conservation and primary health care. People and Plants working paper 1. UNESCO, Paris.

Dold, A.P. and Cocks, M.L. 2002. The trade in medicinal plants in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 98:589-597.

Germishuizen, G., Meyer, N.L., Steenkamp, Y. and Keith, M. (eds). 2006. A checklist of South African plants. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report 41 SABONET, Pretoria.

Mander, M. 1998. Marketing of indigenous medicinal plants in South Africa: a case study in KwaZulu-Natal. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Pooley, E. 2003. Mountain flowers: a field guide to the flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.

Raimondo, D., von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. and Manyama, P.A. 2009. Red List of South African Plants. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

Rowley, G.D. 1987. But are they any use? In: Caudiciform & pachycaul succulents (pp. 221-224), Strawberry Press, Mill Valley, California.

Rowley, G.D. 2001. Dioscorea. In: U. Eggli (ed), Illustrated handbook of succulent plants: Monocotyledons (pp. 254-257), Springer, Berlin.

Scott-Shaw, C.R. 1999. Rare and threatened plants of KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring regions. KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service, Pietermaritzburg.

Von Ahlefeldt, D., Crouch, N.R., Nichols, G., Symmonds, R., McKean, S., Sibiya, H. and Cele, M.P. 2003. Medicinal plants traded on South Africa's eastern seabord. Porcupine Press, Durban.

Wilkin, P. 2001. Dioscoreaceae of south-central Africa. Kew Bulletin 56(2):361-404.

Williams, V.L. 2007. The design of a risk assessment model to determine the impact of the herbal medicine trade on the Witwatersrand on resources of indigenous plant species. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Williams, V.L., Witkowski, T.F. and Balkwill, K. 2007. Volume and financial value of species traded in the medicinal plant markets of Gauteng, South Africa. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 14(6):584-603.

Williams, V.L., Raimondo, D., Crouch, N.R., Cunningham, A.B., Scott-Shaw, C.R., Lötter, M. & Ngwenya, A.M. 2022. Dioscorea sylvatica Eckl. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version . Accessed on 2024/07/14

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