Medicinal Plant Conservation & Use at Tafi Atome Sacred Grove


On the continent of Africa, it is estimated that 60 to 95% of people “depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs” (van Andel et al., 2012). Medicinal plants are under pressure around the world, with thousands of species in trade globally, including for example, African cherry (Prunus africana) and ginseng (Panax spp.) (Baeg and So 2013; Payyappallimana and Subramanian, 2015). Although these species do not occur in Ghana, they provide useful models to avoid similar possible over-harvesting of other highly desirable species of medicinal plants.

Sacred forests or groves are community-managed natural areas that have local cultural significance. These groves may also contain medicinal plants, with associated community rules about by whom, when, and how these plants can be harvested.

Ghana has a long history of community protection of sacred forests, which may contain burial grounds, be a source of water resources, and hold local spiritual significance (Campbell, 2005; Chouin, 2002; Lebbie and Freudenberger, 1996; Dorm-Adzobu et al., 1991). Ghana has more than 1,900 sacred groves; the size of groves ranges from less than one hectare to over one hundred hectares (Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1995). Within these sacred areas, often referred to as fetish groves, taboos on hunting or using particular species offer protection to these natural resources (Amoako-Atta, 1995). 
Around the world, sacred forests have been found to contain a high diversity of medicinally important plants. India, in particular, has been the focus of numerous studies on the botanical diversity of its sacred groves. These sacred groves have been found to be especially important for medicinal plants, with almost twice the density of medicinal plant species of reserve forests in India; nearly 40% of these medicinal plant species are unique to sacred forests (Boraiah et al. 2003). Khumbongmayum et al. (2004, 2005a, 2005b) inventoried 166 sacred groves ranging in size from a few trees to 40 hectares in Manipur, in the northeast of India and found that 96% had medicinal value. Some species of medicinal plants are now only found in these sacred groves (Khumbongmayum et al. 2005a, 2005b). The authors (Khumbongmayum et al. 2005b, p. 1577) explained that the local Meiteis community in Manipur “depends largely on medicinal plants and the utilization of plants and animals for medicinal purposes, [and this] is closely related with their culture and ritual practices, which have been developed by their forefathers.” In a study of five sacred groves in Kodagu (Karnataka, India), Boraiah et al. (2003) found that 60% of the regenerating species (136 of 241 species) were medicinally important.

Our research was conducted in the community of Tafi Atome in Ghana in 2006 as part of a larger study on the sacred grove at Tafi Atome (see Ormsby and Edelman 2010; Ormsby 2012a; Ormsby 2012b). This article reports on unpublished data about the medicinal plant use from the Tafi Atome sacred grove. Our analysis sheds light on the potential role of community-managed sacred groves in medicinal plant conservation globally.

Research site description

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The village of Tafi Atome has over 1000 residents and is located within the Hohoe District of the Volta Region of Ghana (Figure 1). The language widely spoken in Tafi Atome and throughout the region is Ewe. The village is surrounded by a sacred grove of approximately 28 hectares. The grove is a dry semi-deciduous forest and lies within the forest-savannah transitional zone. Both grassland and cultivated farmland immediately surround the sacred grove. 

The sacred grove is protected by a 2006 Hohoe District bylaw for its main value as a habitat for its sacred monkeys. The grove supports the only protected population of true mona monkeys (Cercopithecus mona mona) in all of Ghana. The monkeys are found in the lower and middle layers of the forest, usually in troops of approximately 12 monkeys, feeding on fruits and leaves. They have a reddish brown back and two white spots on their tail, with a bluish face. Unlike many sacred groves found in other countries, there is tourism to the Tafi Atome community to visit the sacred grove and see the monkeys.

Research methods

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During June and July 2006, we conducted semi-structured, open-ended interviews (Figure 2) with 33 residents of Tafi Atome (17 men and 16 women). A qualitative, ethnographic research approach was used, including interviews, participant observation, and focus groups (Creswell, 1994). In Tafi Atome, residents generally live near their family members or clan group. A stratified sampling method (by clan) was used for interviews. An attempt was made to include in the research sample representatives of each clan and an equal number of men and women. The interviewees were assured of the confidentiality of their responses upon introduction. Along with asking basic demographic information, the questionnaire consisted of open-ended and closed-ended questions. A wide variety of ages and occupations were targeted for the interviews. A group interview was conducted with the Tafi Atome Tourism Management Committee during and at the end of the research period to offer feedback. Using the approach of participant observation, guides were viewed interacting with tourists.

In addition to general information about the sacred grove, our research investigated the following questions: Do you use any medicinal plants from the grove? Which plants and for what ailment/treatment? Have you noticed any change in the availability of these materials over the years? 


In the small forest that is the sacred grove of Tafi Atome, medicinal plants are controlled by a local bylaw. You are only allowed to harvest a small amount of the bark of trees, and if harvesting roots, you are not allowed to cut all of the fibroid roots. Children under 20 are not allowed to harvest herbs from the forest. In general, children are not allowed access to the sacred grove, and women during their menstrual period cannot enter the grove or dig any herb in the grove. Strangers and non-residents are also not allowed to remove anything from the grove.  Local men and the fetish priest are allowed to enter the forest.

During the research period in the community of Tafi Atome, 33 residents were interviewed, ranging from age 19 to age 85. The majority of residents interviewed (60.6%) were born and raised in the village. In response to the question, “Do you use any medicinal plants from the grove?” 27 of 33 interviewees (82%) said they use medicinal plants in general. Of those residents, in response to the follow-up question, “Which plants and for what ailment/treatment?” over 35 different species of plants were named, ranging from cultivated commonly used plants, including leaves from lemon and orange trees, to pineapple, African eggplant, avocado, papaya, mango (bark), and guava. Many residents described the part of the plant used–leaves, roots, sap, or bark–and how the treatment is prepared, for example, by boiling leaves into a tea. Forest species mentioned included African teak (Milicia excelsia, locally known as odum), African tulip (Spathodea campanulata, locally known as adatsigo), and Afzelia africana, locally known as papawu. The most common species mentioned was mahogany (Khaya senegalensis), by 51.5% of respondents. Those interviewed reported that mahogany bark was mainly used to treat stomach pains but also used as a blood tonic and to treat fever.

In 1997, mahogany trees were planted to demarcate the boundary of the sanctuary in order to halt encroachment of farmland upon the forest edge.

When residents were asked “Have you noticed any change in the availability of these materials over the years?”, two residents reported that it is more difficult to find larger mahogany trees now because of the high demand for them, and therefore they have planted mahogany at their personal farm. In general, many interviewees responded that they are cultivating medicinal plants on their farms. Despite the specific reduction in mahogany availability, respondents described that the sacred forest is thicker than before and has been expanded due to enforcement and reforestation efforts. Most residents are aware of the significance of using mango and other plants and herbs for medicine, so they plant these near their houses.

Discussion, conclusion, and recommendations

Using medicinal plants can reduce the cost of medication since community members do not have to buy plants that are locally grown. Many of the plants identified during our survey are diminishing in quantity, thus it would be useful to create a large community garden to grow the important medicinal plants.

Because some herbs take only three months to grow to be ready for harvest, these might be planted in home or kitchen gardens for immediate use. Others species take six months to a year, whereas the tree species take years to reach maturity and a time when they can be used for medicine. Thus, if community gardens or forest sanctuaries were to be planted and used as repositories of local resources/knowledge, then it would not take very long for some species to grow and be ready for use by community members.

However, it has been found that publicized knowledge of medicinal plants in sacred groves creates risk that unauthorized people (local or from other areas) enter the grove and harvest the plants, contrary to community protocols. To protect its resources, the Tafi Atome sacred grove joined the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary network in 2015 (Sacred Seeds 2015). Joining this network recognizes the medicinal plant resources conserved within the sacred grove and connects this site with a global community of plant conservation sanctuaries for information exchange and support.

Although not found in Ghana, the example of trade of African wild cherry (Prunus africana) provides a cautionary tale for species in trade in Ghana and elsewhere. Long used for traditional medicine to treat malaria, stomachache, fever, and “men’s problems,” Prunus africana is a species that has come under intense pressure in global trade (Stewart 2003; Cunningham and Mbenkum 1993). The bark of this tree is used internationally to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate. According to Cunningham and Mbenkum (1993), all bark in trade comes from wild trees in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Madagascar and is mainly exported to Europe. Due to unsustainable trade levels, Prunus africana was listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) in 1995 (Stewart 2003). In response to the high demand and unsustainable harvest of this species, Cunningham and Mbenkum (1993) recommend cultivation in nurseries, including propagation from forest tree cuttings.

This study in Ghana, along with the case example of Prunus africana, shows that there is a general need for restoration planting and harvest limits for medicinal plants. It is very important that community members are involved in the selection of plants raised and management of plant nurseries.

Alison Ormsby has a PhD in Environmental Studies; her doctoral research focused on people/park interactions in Madagascar. Alison’s recent research has investigated the links between culture and conservation, specifically at sacred forests in Ghana, India, and Sierra Leone. She teaches Environmental Studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and is a graduate mentor in Environmental Studies at Prescott College.
Robert Kwaku Egbeako has a diploma in tourism. He
was born in Tafi Atome and has worked for many years at the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary as a tour guide in the sanctuary. He is currently studying for a degree in health care assistance.


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