A Lesson from Chimpanzees? (AFNNET)

Alan Anderson

James Kuria began his MSc studies in November 2010, along with his colleagues Zachary Rukenya and Ronald Okindo Onzago, all at the University of Nairobi’s Kabete campus. Like them, he grew up in a rural village, but much closer to the big city of Nairobi -- in Kiambu county, part of the Central Province just north of the capital. The village was far enough from the big city to lack modern medical facilities, however, and he, like the others, had been exposed since childhood to a variety of herbal practices.

“We all had to use herbal remedies,” he said. “You just naturally get acquainted with them. In childhood, in adolescence, it was common. I had allergies, and I would take some plant medicine, and people said it would work, so that made me want to know more. I took one remedy especially, it was supposed to work for 40 diseases, and everyone called it the wonder drug. ‘Take this,’ someone would say, ‘you will not suffer so much.’ It was bitter, I remember. I don’t think it helped me much, but it made me so curious. I had a passion for pharmacology and for veterinary surgery.”

James’ ‘wonder drug’ is known to science as Azadivachta indica, a tree of the mahogany family native to India, where it is called neem and many similar names. In Swahili it is known as muarubaini, which means “tree of the 40.”

James has finished his coursework, and for the time being he has chosen to study not the wonder drug, but a modest member of the daisy family – partly because of its greater availability. He has arrived at a proposal, which he titled: “A Study of the Phytochemistry, Antimicrobial Activity, Effects in Wound Healing, and Topical Adverse Effects of Aspilia pluriseta.”

While Aspilia may be smaller and perhaps less wondrous than Azadivachta, it does have an intriguing place in the scientific literature. Several scientists working on a study site with Jane Goodall near Lake Tanganyika in the 1980s observed the leaves of the plant being eaten by chimpanzees. Unlike the rest of the foods in the chimps’ diet, which were eagerly chewed, the leaves of this plant were eaten only whole. And the chimps ate them only first thing in the morning, slowly, as though savoring them or enjoying some effect. While other scientists have speculated on the purpose of this ritual (a mood-enhancing effect? birth control?), the effect of Aspilia remains mysterious.

Many medicinal effects have been described by humans, however, and James will begin by following up the studies of herbalists in the scientific literature. He will look for any adverse effects on animals, and try to develop “some deeper knowledge of how it’s used.” In the past, both the roots and leaves of the plant have been harvested for medicine, but he will follow the environmental guidelines adopted by AFNNET. “For conservation, we’ll use just the leaves and stem,” he said, “so it can grow back.”