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How Boots in Nottingham Came across a Wild South African Yam

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in different languages connects to its appearance—its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ingwevu’, meaning grey/old or ‘ifudu’, meaning tortoise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’. In the 1950s, the yam was heavily exploited by the British pharmaceutical firm Boots for the production of cortisone. But provincial conservation officials in South Africa fought back against the plundering of a wild plant that they recognised was in danger of being exploited to extinction. In 1949 scientists in the US announced the dramatic effects of a new drug, cortisone. It could be used to treat a variety of ailments, from arthritis to allergies to lupus and skin conditions. Healers in South Africa seem to be well aware of their position – carriers of traditional knowledge that could be lost, but also protectors of knowledge they fear will be exploited for profit with no benefit for them or their communities. Some have worked with campaigners and legal teams to test and record the efficacy of traditional plant medicines, and to prove existing knowledge, to gain recognition that could lead to greater government protection.