For thousands of years, people living around Mount Kenya in the central part of the east African country have relied on a species of indigenous trees to treat different kinds of physical ailments. About a decade ago, western drug companies discovered why the trees are so highly prized. The trees are now facing extinction, becoming the latest symbol, some say, of the destruction caused by western greed and rampant corruption in Africa.
To the untrained eye, Prunus Africana can easily be mistaken for an ordinary tree.
Unlike some of the more distinctive African trees like the majestic baobab and the flat-topped acacia, nothing about the muiri, as it is locally known, is eye-catching. And that ordinariness allows it to blend unnoticed into the green canopy of the forests around Mount Kenya and neighboring Aberdere National Park, where the muiri live alongside a multitude of other species of trees and plants.
Ordinary as the muiri may appear, a local specialist in herbal medicine, Jack Githae, says Prunus Africana are nothing short of a miracle.
"You use the root. You use the bark. You use the leaves. It is used for abdominal problems, infectious diseases, allergies, and used in veterinary medicine. So, it's very useful," he said.
Muiri trees also grow in the tropical forests of central Africa and in the equatorial region of West Africa. But the largest concentration of the trees is in Kenya.
Word about the curative powers of the muiri reached European pharmaceutical companies around a decade ago. Subsequent research found that the bark of the muiri tree contained properties effective in fighting prostate cancer, a deadly disease which often strikes men in their 60s and 70s.
Large-scale commercial harvesting of the trees soon began in Kenya and huge quantities of dried muiri bark, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, have been exported, mostly to Europe.
Ideally, long, narrow strips of the bark should be removed from each tree, allowing the tree to rejuvenate. The stripped bark grows back after about two years.
But Jack Githae accuses drug companies of hiring agents, who did not consult the local people and had no interest in learning how to harvest the trees properly.
"I have seen quite a number of them come with tractors, with power saws. They cut, de-bark, and leave the trunk to be used as firewood. By the time we discovered, most of the muiri were cut off," he said.
Thousands of muiri trees are believed to have been destroyed in Kenya, putting Prunus Africana on the list of the most endangered plant species in the world.
Jonathan Leakey, the son of famed paleontologist Louis Leakey, acknowledges that he was one of the agents in Kenya, who helped collect and export hundreds of tons of muiri bark to Europe.
"I was. Yes, I'm not denying that. I was a major exporter," said Leakey. "But for some four or five years, I have not exported any. I have nothing more to do with that tree. I have totally stopped dealing with it. It is not being harvested anymore anyway. There is a total ban on the export and the collection of the bark from this tree. It is a government ban."
But conservationists say the ban is only loosely enforced in Kenya and companies who pay hefty bribes are being allowed to harvest muiri at unsustainable levels.
Kenyan conservationist and Nobel laureate, Wangari Mathai, tells VOA that western drug companies should not be the only group, who should be held responsible for the demise of the muiri tree.
"It is those educated foresters. It is the ministers in government. It is the government personnel, who are charged with the responsibility of protecting these resources. So, if they become corrupt and allow themselves to be persuaded by the agents, then of course, as a country, we are losing. You are talking about a country where 56 percent of the people are poor. If you show them a few thousand shillings and you tell them to go into the forest and cut a muiri tree, and the forester is willing to share the loot, it is very, very difficult to convince such a person that the tree is so valuable that one day, it could be turned into an extremely valuable drug and therefore, he should not cut it. It is very, very difficult. That is why we say poverty is both a cause and reason for environmental destruction," she explained.
Wangari Mathai and other conservationists say they are doing their best to educate Kenyans and other Africans about the importance of protecting national resources.
But she acknowledges that the effort will likely fail unless both western companies and African governments work together to curb the destructive cycle of greed and corruption.