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By Christina Gallagher
Trees known to raise men's sexual prowess and bring bad luck are attracting poachers to a remote Venda area, where they earn up to R10 000 by selling pieces stripped from them.
The two tree species - the bad luck one, the Brackenridsea Zanguebarica - and the other, often called "African Viagra" - Securidaca Longepedunculata - have been used by people in southern Africa for generations.
Popular for their supposed magical powers, the trees are surrounded by myths and legends.
Phineus Ntanganedzeni, a nature conservationist at Mutavha Tshindi Nature Reserve, said rituals were followed when gathering the trees and that people who poached the trees were said to go insane, become impotent or cause women to have non-stop menstruation.
The Brackenridsea is used to cure flu and coughs and to banish unwanted people. Traditional healers each have their own ritual when harvesting it.
"Some strip naked when they dig it up," said Ntanganedzeni. "Others sacrifice animals in front of the tree. People are not allowed to just take it."
The tree is also used by men wanting another wife without having to take care of their other family. "If you use this tree, your wife will never claim anything from you."
Ntanganedzeni also said sprinkling some of the powder on an unwanted colleague's chair would get rid of them. "When they go home they will never come back."
But the tree thought to be 10 times stronger than Viagra - called Mpesu in Tshivenda - has attracted the most attention. The leaves and bark are ground to a powder and mixed with water or baboon urine
"If you eat it today it will last five to six days and you will have a strong erection."
Ntanganedzeni said the constant erection would not hurt. "Whenever you meet a lady you will get strong," he said, adding a warning that Mpesu should only be prescribed by traditional healers.
Ntanganedzeni joked that the Venda people were known for having a lot of children, implying that it was because of Mpesu.
"If you go to Joburg, the women will say they want a Venda man."
Poachers have now converged on the area to plunder Mpesu, once plentiful throughout Zimbabwe and Tanzania because it grows best there.
"Botanical gardens have tried to grow the tree, but the soil and rainfall here is the best."
Ntanganedzeni said the alarming rate at which poachers were stripping the trees was killing the species.
They sell to traditional healers and hawkers, but the muti is available throughout South Africa. Mpesu can fetch up to R10 000 for a small bagful.
Rich people from Joburg were also increasingly visiting the area in search of the muti.
Local chief Nditsheni Nethengwe said his people were doing everything to protect the tree.
"People should know that if they are caught with either of these plants they will be arrested," he said.