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Why knowledge of toxic plants is vital to farmers

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By Fidelis Manyange 

LAST year, during one of my numerous visits to Matabeleland, I came upon the unfortunate case of a farmer from Sipambili Village under Chief Gampu in Tsholotsho who had lost 14 head of cattle. 

The animals had consumed a poisonous plant known as Dichapetalum cymosum or Umkhawuzane in Ndebele. 

The plant is a small prostrate shrub with a very extensive root system that goes up to 20 metres deep and is found in the northern parts of Southern Africa. 

In Zimbabwe, it is mostly confined to the Kalahari sands of Matabeleland North and South provinces as well as parts of Masvingo. 

Its toxic effects include vomiting, seizure and an irregular heartbeat with death occurring a few hours after consumption. Losing 14 beasts at once is quite disturbing and is a heavy blow to a farmer as cattle are an important store of wealth in African culture. 

In January this year, in my home area of Dandara Village, Murehwa, a family accused a local butcher of poisoning their cattle by feeding them poisoned vegetables after they were found dead in their kraal in the morning. 

“Vakanditi ndakatuma vakomana kunopa mombe dzawo mavheji anechepfu kuti ndizodzitenga very cheap nekuti vanenge vasisina option apa inini handitengesi mombe dzakafa dzega mubutchery mangu,” said the accused butcher. 

It was later discovered that the cattle had consumed a nearby poisonous shrub which sprouts at the beginning of the rainy season. 

It is important to know such dangerous plants around the country as farmers keep on losing cattle due to poisonous and plants. Knowing, identifying and removing such plants from pastures is helpful in keeping the animals safe and will reduce the risk of the animals’ exposure to such toxic plants. 

Another poisonous plant, known as the albizia species, is a major drawback to livestock production since it can bring about total loss or reduced productivity of the affected animals. However, poisoning of livestock by the albizia species may go undiagnosed due to low index of suspicion among both the vets and poor knowledge among the general public. Veterinarians should have a high index of suspicion when investigating cases of sudden death in ruminants with signs of struggle. 

The training of farmers on prevention of bovine deaths due to albizia consumption is of paramount importance. Cattle are more vulnerable because of their non-selective grazing behaviour. 

Other equally toxic plants found around the country are Albizia tanganyincesis, Albizia versiolor and Lantana camara. 

Versiolor is found mainly on the periphery of the Central Highveld of Zimbabwe. It is a tree that is medium to large and usually grows to about 10 metres. Its crown is spread or rounded. Despite Versiolor having several medicinal uses for humans in various countries (for treatment of venereal diseases), its unripe pods are very lethal to ruminants and cause Albiosis in cattle which may lead to death in 48 hours of consumption. 

The equally noxious Albizia tanganyincesis is a more upright tree, usually 3-8m tall which is medium-sized, sparingly branched with a thin papery bark that is brownish in colour. In Mutoko, it is used as live fencing poles; so it is crucial that farmers are educated on the proper harvesting and disposal of pods from their live albizia fencing poles. 

Lantana camara, which is common throughout the country, is mostly used in rural and urban areas as enclosures around homesteads, gardens or fields. It is also deadly when consumed by livestock. Livestock is likely to die within 10 days of consumption of this plant. All parts of Lantana camara are poisonous, but especially the leaves. Lantana poisoning has been taking a heavy toll on livestock, year-after-year, unnoticed, and a remedy has yet to be found against the plant’s toxicity. 

The problem of toxic plants on livestock production, especially cattle, is a global phenomenon. 

In Germany, it is reported that plant intoxications are responsible for the highest number of livestock fatalities. 

Local management of plants, with the support and participation of local communities, is essential for the elimination of the albizia species 

For instance, in Murehwa, traditional leaders and villagers are working hand-in-hand with veterinary officers and agricultural extension workers in an effort to eradicate the Lantana camara bushes which also pose a threat to other plant species. 

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