/ 15 April 2008

So who stole the hoodia?

A serial dieter, a budding botanist or a gardening enthusiast?

The disappearance of Hoodia gordonii, a rare indigenous succulent, from the garden of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre has caused a stir. The plant’s claim to fame is its P57, an appetite-suppressing substance, which is widely used for weight loss.

“It seems like the two specimens were stolen probably at night because this place is always teeming with people,” says the centre’s Geoffrey Blundell, pointing at the now empty spot where the two plants once stood.

Scarce and limited to the Kalahari, Blundell said it may take time to replace the hoodia.

Blundell published a book on the history of the hoodia, which has highlighted how the San people continue to be robbed of their intellectual rights in the growing diet industry.

San hunters are reported to have used it while they trekked through the Kalahari Desert for days without food.

When Western researchers recently stumbled on this plant, a British pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm, subsequently patented the P57. P57 has no side effects and it is expected to revolutionise the diet industry.

The demand is continuously increasing globally, with a sudden surge in demand experienced locally.

Currently the drug enjoys over-the-counter availability and comes in capsule and powder form.

Blundell is worried that as the demand for the plant increases both internationally and nationally serious problems regarding its sustainability could arise.

His fears were temporarily put to rest by the fact that finding hoodia is not an easy thing to do.

He says supplies are limited so the plant is not even sold at garden shops.