- Open Access
Ethnopharmacological survey of Samburu district, Kenya
© Nanyingi et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 04 March 2008
Accepted: 23 May 2008
Published: 23 May 2008
Ethnobotanical pharmacopoeia is confidently used in disease intervention and there is need for documentation and preservation of traditional medical knowledge to bolster the discovery of novel drugs. The objective of the present study was to document the indigenous medicinal plant utilization, management and their extinction threats in Samburu District, Kenya.
Field research was conducted in six divisions of Samburu District in Kenya. We randomly sampled 100 consented interviewees stratified by age, gender, occupation and level of education. We collected plant use data through semi-structured questionnaires; transect walks, oral interviews and focus groups discussions. Voucher specimens of all cited botanic species were collected and deposited at University of Nairobi's botany herbarium.
Data on plant use from the informants yielded 990 citations on 56 medicinal plant species, which are used to treat 54 different animal and human diseases including; malaria, digestive disorders, respiratory syndromes and ectoparasites.
The ethnomedicinal use of plant species was documented in the study area for treatment of both human and veterinary diseases. The local population has high ethnobotanical knowledge and has adopted sound management conservation practices. The major threatening factors reported were anthropogenic and natural. Ethnomedical documentation and sustainable plant utilization can support drug discovery efforts in developing countries.
The Samburu pastoralists of Kenya are still among the traditional communities of the country that have retained most of their knowledge about the use of a large part of the plants in their environment for a wide variety of purposes. This knowledge is however dwindling rapidly due to changes towards a more western lifestyle, overgrazing and overexploitation of plant resources have already led to a decline of the plant material available .
Ethnopharmacology and natural product drug discovery remains a significant hope in the improving the poor livelihoods of rural communities. Many modern pharmaceuticals have their origin in ethnomedicine and ethnoveterinary medicine, which relies upon a local pharmacopoeia . The ethnopharmacology knowledge is a holistic system approach that can serve as an innovative and powerful discovery engines for newer, safer and affordable medicines .
High throughput screening in industries and the isolation of many have proven to be of poor cost-effectiveness due to lack of comprehensive biological and clinical evaluation .
Natural products from botanical sources used in traditional medicine may combat multidrug-resistant (MDR) infectious diseases through the elucidation and validation of biological compounds with novel mechanisms of action.
Ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological studies normally involve field explorations of indigenous medical knowledge and biodiversity .
The cultural importance of traditional medicine and physical isolation of communities both in general and from primary health cares (PHCs), are the factors that influence the dramatic use of use herbal medicines in developing countries[7, 8].
Cultural acceptability of traditional practices, along with perceptions of affordability, safety and efficacy play a role in stimulating scientific research and validation of traditional medicines .
Ethnoveterinary medicine (EVM) include use of medicinal plants, surgical techniques and management practices  which forms a basis of veterinary diseases management in Samburu District. Herbal medicines are cheap and readily available in the pastoral areas but lack of sufficient scientific data on efficacy, therapeutic index, toxic effects and other pharmacological and toxicological properties to support their use .
Despite the fact that EVM has been very crucial for the animal healthcares of most developing countries, it has not yet been well documented and much effort is needed in research and integration activities in these countries .
Interdisciplinary studies to effectively combine ethnography, medical anthropology and ethnopharmacology to formulate meaningful conclusions regarding how local healers effect cure should be encouraged .
There are several ethnomedicinal and ethnoveterinary studies which are being carried out realizing the benefit of traditional medication to promote the cheap and safe disease management. The outcomes of these researches have immense contribution to attitude change and adaptation, though there are very few in light of Kenya's biodiversity.
The population in the District depend on livestock products for their food source and the natural vegetation as source of fuel, medicine, construction materials and other cultural needs. The overdependence on natural vegetation as food, fuel, building and medicine in Samburu District might be the cause of the cause for the environmental. Therefore, there is a need to carry out more research pertaining to documentation of useful medicinal plants in this area before they disappear, especially those which are already endangered by natural and anthropogenic activities [14–16].
In the current study we investigated and documented the local use of medicinal plants, management and extinction threats. We also compared the use of medicinal plants in treatment of human and animal diseases.
Materials and methods
Study area and ethnographic background
The study area has a bimodal rainfall distribution from April to May (long rains) and July to September (short rains). The dry season then extends from January to March. The mean annual rainfall is 500 mm. it has mean annual temperatures of 29°C. Samburus are the indigenous dominant ethnic group with Turkana and Maasai having settled in the area. Pastoralism is the major economic activity of the local people. The District has a population of approximately 156125 people. These rural communities are almost totally dependent on forests and savannah as traditional/herbal medicine for their own health and livestock care.
A reconnaissance survey was made from December 2006 to January 2007 to obtain an impression on vegetation characteristics of the study area. The fieldwork was done in January, February, May and August 2007.
The methods used for ethnobotanical data collection were semi structured interviews, field observation, preference ranking and direct-matrix ranking according to [18, 20]. These interviews were conducted in vernacular (Samburu) translated by local field assistants, three different field trips were conducted.
Plants of veterinary and medical utility in Samburu District.
Acokanthera schimperi Benth. & Hook.
Ectoparasites(ticks, fleas, mite)
Adenium obesum (Forssk.)
Powdering, Cold decoction
Carissa edulis (Forssk.) Vahl
Chewing, hot/cold decoction
Theileriosis, helminthosis, rheumatism, Malaria TB, Venereal diseases(VD), Salmonellosis, Heart water
Nerium oleander L
URTI and GIT complications
Rhus natalensis Bernh. ex Kraus
Malaria, fevers, TB
Pentarrhinum inspidum E. Mey.
Aloe secundiflora Engl.
Burning and squeezing to drip hot exudate
Gutenbergia cordifolia Benth.
powdering, hot decoction
Psiadia punctulata (DC.) Oliv. & Hiern
Fumigation, smoke/steam bath
Balanites rotundifolia (Tiegh.)
GIT complications (Emetic), Eye infection
Cordia sinensis Lam
Grinding, hot decoction
Malaria and fevers, Eye infection
Ehretia buxifolia. Willd
Pounding, hot decoction
GIT complications, URTI, Malaria
Senna singueana Del
Grinding, hot decoction
Malaria, complicated fevers
Warburgia ugandensis Sprague
Stem bark, leaves
helminthosis, Heart water, Ectoparasites black quarter, emetic, Trypanosomosis, ECF
Maytenus senegalensis (Lam.)
Terminalia brownii Fries
yellow fever, GIT Complications(emetic), Trypanosomosis
Euclea divinorum Hiern
Malaria, Fevers, Anaplasmosis, VD
Croton megalocarpus Hutch.
Homogenization and decoction
Malaria, Fevers, diarrhea, Anaplasmosis, wounds.
Stem cutting to drip Sap mix with rumen contents
URTI and GIT complications, wounds, coenurosis.
Euphorbia herechroma Pax
Stem cutting to drip Sap
Tick infestation, Ectoparasites
Ricinus communis L.
Malaria, fevers, RAB
Crushing, hot decoction with soup
RAB, GIT complications, Anaplasmosis, Mastitis
Retained afterbirth, Wounds
Azadirachta indica A. Juss.
Leaves, Stem barks
Stem cutting, pounding, Hot/cold decoction
Malaria, Fevers, GIT complications
Acacia abyssinica Hochst.
Gastrointestinal distress, Lumbago and arthritis
Powdering, Cold decoction
RAB, Babesiosis, GIT complications
Acacia nilotica (L.) Willd.
GIT complications, Babesiosis
Albizia anthelmintica Brongn.
Root bark, roots
Pounding, Cold decoction
Antihelmintic (Lungworms), Malaria, wounds
Myrsine africana L.
Grinding, hot decoction, chewing
Helminthosis, Malaria, Wounds, TB, GIT complications
Grinding, hot decoction
Syzygium cordatum Hochst
Ximenia caffra Sond.
Malaria, Fevers, Acute URTI, Dermatitis, ulcers,
Olea africana Miller
Pounding, hot decoction
Helmithosis, Asthma, Rheumatism, Lumbago,
Enteropogon macrostachyus (Hochst.)
Podocarpus falcatus (Thunb.)
Hot decoction, Fumigation
Crushing, homogenizing for hot/cold decoction
Wounds, gastric ulcers, schistosomiasis, neurosis, ECF, rheumatism, epilepsy, TB, Asthma, collibacillosis
Helinus integrifolius (Lam.) Kuntze
Grinding. hot decoction, mix with milk
Rhamnus stado L
Scutia myrtina (Burm. F.) Kuntz
Rubia cordifolia L.
Teclea simplicifolia (Engl.)
Cerebral malaria, Fevers
Zanthoxylum usambarense (Engl.)
Grinding, Hot decoction
URTI, Malaria, Malignant catarrhal fever.
Salvadora persica L
Grinding, hot decoction
RAB, ulcers, seizures, toothbrush, mange, Trypanosomosis, Brucellosis, and Anthrax.
Harrisonia abyssinica Oliv.
Grinding, hot decoction
Abscess, ECF, Malaria, Lumbago, Rheumatism, RAB
Nicotiana tabacum L.
Crushing, smoke bath, chewing
Snuff, Ectoparasites, wounds, Babesiosis, gastro-enteritis, chronic cough, gingivitis, candidosis, glossitis
Solanum incanum L.
Burn and drip sap on skin
Lippia javanica (Bur)
Clerodendrum myricoides (Hochst.)
Powdering, hot decoction, chewing
GIT, Lumbago, Venereal diseases.
Rhoicissus tridentata (L.F.)
Crushing, cold homogenization
Crushing, hot decoction
URTI and GIT complications
Data acquisition questionnaire for utilization and conservation of medicinal plants in Samburu district, Kenya
PART 1: RESPONDENTS DETAILS
Occupation........................................................ Level of education........................................
Type of Plant (Local name)..........................................................................................
Administration form (s)..........................................................................................
Part(s) of plant used..........................................................................................
Used on : Humans................................... Animals/Species.........................................
Route(s) of application..........................................................................................
Response of Patient Good.........................Fair........................ Poor.........................
Duration of response Seconds......................... Minutes......................... Hours.........................
PART 2: RESPONDENTS CONSENT AGREEMENT
I.......................................................................................Hereby agree to participate in this study with my full consent and conscious and declare that to the best of my Knowledge the information that I have provided is true, accurate and complete.
PART 3: RESEARCHER'S DECLARATION
1. The following research will be undertaken with respect to the indigenous knowledge and intellectual proprietary of the Samburu Community.
2. We will at no given time initiate or conduct practices that are deemed to obtain information from the respondents by intimidation, coercion or false pretence.
3. The respondents will be informed of the intended project elaborately prior to questionnaire administration and in confidential to eliminate any degree of conspiracy.
4. We will be no under any obligation to edit or tamper the information provided by the respondents.
5. Translation and transcription will be necessary for clarification due to the language barrier.
6. The information collected will be used for the described research purpose and not any undisclosed any undisclosed intentions.
1. Dr. Nanyingi M.O..................2. Dr. Ogara O.W..................3. Dr. Mbaria J.M..................
Geographical Positioning Systems readings were also taken at the sites where each medicinal plant was collected (GARMIN, Olathe, USA). Some of the plants were identified in the field by herbalists while most were identified at the Herbarium of University of Nairobi, Botany department using specific taxonomic keys and floras[22, 23].
Ethnobotanical data were entered in to Excel spreadsheet and summarized using descriptive statistics .
Wilcoxon's test was used to determine if there was a difference age of respondents and knowledge of medicinal plants used. Chi-square test was used to evaluate the average number of medicinal plant species reported and used by each informant, to determine if there is any significant difference between female and male practitioners with respect to the knowledge and use of medicinal plants. The Spearman rank correlation test was used to determine whether there was a significant correlation between the disease reported and the number of ethnoveterinary medicinal plant species used by each informant for management of the disease. STATA 9.2 IE (Stata Corporation, College Station, Texas, USA) software was used.
Results and discussion
Medicinal plants diversity and Ethnobotanical knowledge
There was a highly significant difference between age of respondents and knowledge of medicinal plants (Wilcoxon's test, p < 0.001). The average number of medicinal plants known and used by female and male practitioners was similar (χ2 = 8.262, d.f. = 13, p = 0.932). It was observed that informants between 58 and 77 years old mentioned more species than younger informants: 58–67 years old: about 10 per informant; 48–57: about 6; 38–47: about 5; and 28–37: 2 quoted plants, due to larger experience of older individuals. These results also agree with other previous studies. It was observed that some plants had more than one vernacular name due to use of the Maasai and Turkana dialects in the area.
Diseases treated in the study area
Ticks (lntunturi) were the main cattle ectoparasites that the local people controlled using traditional plant extracts. The most frequently used plants for tick control were found to be: Acokanthera schimperi (Lmorijoi), Adenium obesum (Lperantai), Aloe secundiflora (Sukuroi),Psiadia punctulata (Labaai),Nicotiana tabacam (Lkumbao), Euphorbia herechroma (Lpara) represented in table 1.
The respondents classified all intestinal worms under one local name, ntubui and therefore use the same plant extracts for all helminths. The main species used for this were: seeds of Myrsine africana L (Seketet) (45%), Albizia anthelmintica (Lmungutan) (30%) and Warburgia ugandensis (Sokorioi) (18%).
Medicinal plants used by the locals
The preparation of the medicines employed several methods; hot decoction (48%) followed by cold decoction (19.4%) and homogenization by pounding or powdering (6.5%) respectively in (table 1). The majority of these preparations were drawn from mixtures of different plant species for the treatment of a single ailment. Oral administration (8%) was the predominant route of administration followed by dermal and nasal administrations (20%).
Medicinal plants extinction threats
Many medicinal plants in the study area were mainly threatened by anthropogenic and natural factors. The majority of medicinal plants declined due to deforestation for construction, tools, firewood, fodder, agricultural expansion and ceremonial purposes. Drought, overgrazing, bush fires had reportedly affected a significant number of medicinal plant species.
Conservation efforts and indigenous knowledge transfer
About 47% of the informants had sufficient awareness in conserving some medicinal plant species that were relatively scarce in their surroundings. In situ protection of plants (fencing plants in their natural habitat, refraining from excessive cutting, debarking and uprooting and protection from fire) and ex situ conservation by cultivation of some plants as live fence and in nurseries were undertaken by the locals. Moreover, some of them were keen to inform responsible bodies or authorities of any illegal logging, deforestation and bush fires.
Majority of local healers preferred to collect medicinal plants solely to preserve their secrecy sometimes accompanied by the chosen family member(s). The ethnobotanical knowledge is transferred to that trustworthy family member by word of mouth rather than through a well organized written script . Some of the ethnopractitioners were reluctant to pass on their plant use knowledge even to their families leading to the fragmentation and loss of the indigenous knowledge system and eventually medicinal plants .
This study revealed that traditional medical healers and pastoralists in Samburu District had sound knowledge of traditional medicine, from whom about 54 indications (animal and human) and a total of 56 medicinal plants of importance were recorded.
The continued reliance of Samburus' on traditional medicines is due to economic circumstances, which place modern health facilities, services and pharmaceuticals out of the reach of the majority of the population. It is also attributable to the widespread belief in the effectiveness of many traditional therapies .
The current investigation indicates that leaves are the most collected plant parts for medicinal purposes and this situation could be a severe threat to some rare and slowly reproducing medicinal plants. The practice of exploiting perennial plant parts, such as roots of relatively slow growing woody species, can result in a decline in both, the size and distributions of populations of the exploited species, and ultimately result in the local extinction of these populations .
The use of plants is evenly distributed for management of both medical and veterinary conditions this finding was contrary to earlier findings in the same geographical zone which reported insignificant veterinary use .
The majority of plant preparations were drawn from mixtures of different plant species for the treatment of a single ailment and similar results had reported elsewhere . This was contrary to the findings of other researchers in other countries where most of the remedies were prepared from a single species . This could also be ascribed to the differences in the socio cultural landscapes, indigenous knowledge on synergetic effect of different medicinal plants and vegetation types in the current study area .
The most frequently used methods of preparation were hot decoctions, cold decoctions, powdering and grinding respectively. The prepared medicines were mainly administered through oral (98%), dermal (1.5%), and nasal (0.5%), routes concurring with the previous findings in Ethiopia .
The measurements used to determine the dosages were not standardized and depended on the age and physical appearance of the patient, sociocultural explanation of the illness, diagnosis and experience of individual herbalist .
The naming of diseases by local people when compared to conventional systems, at times did not distinguish between diseases and symptoms of diseases. This is because local disease nomenclature is based on symptoms of diseases and not according to aetiological information [31, 32].
While conducting this study, some informants raised some concern on false promises about getting the feedback. They agreed that scientific methods are better in revealing harmful effects of herbs. In the drug development research and bioprospection, biological activity based on ethnomedical uses seems as a better approach compared to randomly selected plants 
We are currently undertaking field trials, in-vitro and in-vivo tests of these plants for antihelmintic, antiparasitic, antiplasmodial, antibacterial and cytotoxic activities to confirm the therapeutic properties claimed by informants.
Conclusions and recommendations
Indigenous knowledge, botanical diversity and ethnopharmacopoeia practices were recorded from Samburu District. The botanical resources were found to be under threat due to several anthropogenic and natural factors.
Disappearance of traditional medical skills was evident in the study area and this prompts for design of linguistic, anthropological and ethnographic methods in the context of ethnopharmacology to document the indigenous knowledge so as to minimize the eminent fragmentation and biodiversity loss.
The lack of standardized posology of the traditional medicines should encourage pharmacological and toxicological tests to develop formulations that can be administered in measurable dosages whose clinical efficacy can be monitored and pharmacovigilance mechanisms instituted to eliminate development of resistance to these novel compounds. Scientific feedback studies should be encouraged to instil confidence in the increasingly suspicious local populations to eliminate the apparent hostility observed among some the informants during the field research.
The data presented in this paper form a basis for further ethnopharmacological research in this region especially in studies dealing with efficacy, dosage, quality and toxicology. Those plants found empirically to be particularly effective can be used in preparation of commercial indigenous-based pharmaceuticals. We recommend that ethnopharmacologists project pharmacologic data against a backdrop of medical ethnography and anthropology. Relevant evidence generated from literature review and these biological tests will be passed back in order to improve the proper use of medicinal plants and create a good relationship for future ethnobotanical studies. The local community of Samburu District, Kenya is the owner of the traditional knowledge presented in this paper, consequently any benefits that may arise from the use this knowledge must be shared with them.
The present research was funded by the Commision of Higher Education (CHE), Kenya through a research grant: CHE/1/26/1/4 (PI: J.M.Mbaria). We especially thank all of the study participants who voluntarily shared a wealth of their accumulated knowledge regarding the ethnomedical and ethnoveterinary practices of their communities and for their hospitality.
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