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Hoodia fever takes a toll on rare plant

At $40 an ounce, the African succulent is fueling the diet industry -- and smuggling.

December 26, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MARIENTAL, NAMIBIA — When fully grown, the plant resembles something from "The Day of the Triffids" or some other science-fiction creation: a squat succulent with thick, spiky arms, purple fleshy petals and seedpods like rhino horns.

Hoodia gordonii is no beauty, but this humble plant is Africa's latest cash crop, priced almost like a narcotic at $40 an ounce. The plant, which grows wild in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, was once used by indigenous tribes to suppress hunger and thirst when hunting. Now it's such a darling of the international dieting industry that Googling "hoodia" calls up about 12 million responses.

The demand is so hot that wild supplies have been severely compromised and smuggling is rife, and farmers in southern Africa are trying to get in on the game.

"You start doing the sums: It's too good to be true. You want to throw your calculator away. It's an impossible phenomenon," hoodia farmer Dougal Bassingthwaighte said.

With international giant Unilever licensed to commercialize hoodia and international demand far outstripping supply, there's a mad race on to get plants to the market.

Bassingthwaighte, 65, who is farming hoodia with his son, Kirk, has 130,000 seedlings being planted out from his nursery, where they begin as tiny green sprouts, to his fields. In about two years, when he plans to harvest them, each is likely to weigh about 4 pounds. He hopes to have a million plants next year.

But the explosion of interest has not only put enormous pressure on the rare plant -- listed as an endangered species by international treaty -- it also puts intense pressure on an embryonic market that could be a boon for Africans if it could grow at a natural and sustainable pace.

The craze for hoodia seems to bring out the worst in people. Tiny as it is, the industry is rife with fierce, competitive secrecy, quack products and illegal harvesting. Next, authorities in crime-ridden South Africa fear, comes the inevitable interest of organized gangsters.

Whether hoodia works as a diet aid has not been scientifically proved. Pills and capsules claiming to contain hoodia are widely available in the United States online and at stores that sell herbal supplements. Such products are largely exempt from the U.S. government regulations that require drugs to be tested for safety and effectiveness before being sold.

But Bassingthwaighte says he has no doubt.

"I grew up with it. I actually ate it as a kid. I know the stuff works," he said. As a farm boy he often walked or rode in the heat to other farms. "And people said, 'Eat this. It will take away your hunger and thirst.' And it did."

Back then, it never occurred to anyone to farm the plant.

Three types contain the active ingredient P57: Hoodia gordonii, the most common, which has a bitter taste; the similar-looking Hoodia currorii; and Hoodia officinalis, a smaller and rarer plant, preferred by indigenous Namibian tribes because it's sweeter. Bassingthwaighte sees the last as having potential as a salad vegetable.

South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research identified P57 and patented it in 1996, later licensing British firm Phytopharm to develop and commercialize it. The council argues that anyone who sells hoodia as a weight-reduction product outside that license would infringe on the patent.

In 1998, Pfizer signed a deal to develop the product but withdrew in 2003; a year later, Unilever entered a licensing deal with Phytopharm. Under pressure from lawyers representing members of the San tribe of southern Africa, Phytopharm later signed a royalty deal with them.

South Africa is the only African country exporting hoodia legally. Paul Gildenhuys of the Western Cape Conservation Authority said the amount of hoodia exported to Europe and the United States under permit from that province more than doubled in the last year from 22 tons to 49, raising suspicions that significant smuggling was going on. He said there were reports of hoodia flowing through Western Cape province from other parts of South Africa or other countries.

"The problem with the industry is that people are all trying to get their part of the cake," he said. "They actually try to guard their information jealously. And a lot of people try to run each other down. They will say, 'Don't buy anything from Mr. X because he's a smuggler. Buy from me.' But there's nothing to prove that it's true."

To the northwest, in Namibia, the growing demand has led to widespread smuggling that has endangered wild plants.

"This smuggling is a huge concern because it's undermining the whole industry," Bassingthwaighte said. "They were coming across and smuggling hoodia before we woke up to it. When our local indigenous people realized this thing was of value, they started ripping the plants up in the wild."

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