What is Bark Stripping? 


MARCH, 2022

By Jessie Leverzencie

It goes without saying that at Greenpop we L-O-V-E trees! Here in Cape Town, we are blessed with lush greenery in and around the city, but in recent years we have been facing a new dilemma that threatens our tree population bark stripping. 

Bark stripping is a relatively unknown issue to the general public and is one that is of great detriment to our trees. But by spreading awareness and coming together as one, we can help stop this dilemma and help save and conserve our trees for future generations— trees are, after all, the lungs of our planet. Are you ready to learn more?

What is bark stripping?

Bark stripping is the illegal stripping and harvesting of the bark of a tree for individual profit. Trees that are specifically targeted tend to have thinner bark, like Fever trees, Camphor trees, and Norfolk Pines. Thinner bark is not only easier to strip off and harvest, but also easier to pulverise.

Many years ago, when populations were far smaller, bark stripping posed less of an issue as it was done on a more sustainable level. In recent years, however, with ever-increasing populations, bark stripping and ring barking have turned into a larger environmental challenge. Ring barking is where an entire circumference strip or section of bark from a tree is removed, ultimately resulting in the death of that tree. This has seen many trees in areas around Cape Town under threat, as the stripping of its bark exposes the complex tissues underneath the bark, to the elements. The tree is, therefore also at risk of viral or bacterial infections, growth is stunted and the tree is ultimately resigned to a slow death.

Not only does bark stripping damage the tree itself, but also creates a ripple effect that spreads through an entire forest ecosystem. Animals and insects all rely on the trees for survival, but with more and more trees dying, their natural habitat is threatened. Dead trees also pose a fire hazard, which is a great risk in an area like Newlands Forest, which is dense with dry leaves and foliage.

What does the bark of a tree do?

A tree consists of many complex systems, stretching from its canopy of leaves above to the root system underneath the soil. Tree bark is a key player in a tree’s anatomy and is predominantly responsible for protecting the tree. Bark ranges in colour, from shades of brown, grey and green to orange, red and in some species the bark even has a striped appearance. 

Beneath the bark, lies a tree’s xylem and phloem, which form a complex system crucial to keeping a tree alive. Phloem transports carbohydrates, a by-product of photosynthesis, from the leaves to other parts of the tree. Xylem can be compared to the vascular system of animals and is responsible for the transportation of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves of the tree. Xylem is also important to the structure of the tree as it eventually forms a part of a tree’s wood, and phloem eventually forms part of a tree’s bark.

Bark plays an integral role in a tree’s overall survival, by protecting these delicate and complex systems, beneath the bark, from the elements, insects, and wildlife. Tree bark is also a source of food for many animals who eat the bark or feed off the insects living in the bark. Bark also houses entire ecosystems on its surface and inside its many grooves and fissures. Animals, insects, moss, fungi, and microorganisms alike, all make their homes in and thrive in the bark. 

What is tree bark used for?

Due to the vast variety of different textures of tree bark, its uses are as diverse. Tree bark has been used for centuries, to make everything from rope, dyes and paints, canoes, ground covering, decoration, and even maps. In South Africa, tree bark and roots, are also used for cultural and medicinal purposes. The bark is harvested, dried out, and can also be made into a powder form. 

Between 60-80% of South Africa’s population use traditional medicine, and the bark is used for various ailments from topical treatments for skin, to the treatment of heart and lung problems.  Bark accounts for ⅓ of the plant matter which is traded in traditional medicine. This is not to say, however, that traditional healers are necessarily bark strippers themselves, as the bark is often sold by private traders. Creating a balance between this cultural practice, people’s livelihoods and conserving our forests is a complex issue.

What is being done about it? 

“I choose the word ‘stop’ deliberately; it needs to stop, not be regulated. If it stopped tomorrow, then it would take the forest 500 years to fully recover,” says Francois Krige, the owner of Krige Tree Services and one of the custodians of the Platbos Forest Reserve. 

In areas across Cape Town, bark stripping has been increasing recently, specifically over the December holiday period — from Newlands Forest, one of Cape Town’s most beloved natural areas, to suburbs like Durbanville. As one can imagine, in a large, natural area like Newlands Forest, an issue like bark stripping is nearly impossible to monitor or prevent. SANParks rangers have even implemented night patrols around the forest, in an attempt to catch bark strippers in the act and stop them from further damaging the forest. 

In areas like Durbanville, the City of Cape Town’s Recreation and Parks Department have started painting the trunks of trees a grey or brown colour. This is in an attempt to render the bark of these trees undesirable for stripping. The hope is that this will help stop bark stripping and give our natural tree populations time to recover.

How you can help?

Be sure to report any bark stripping, bark-stripped trees, or bark harvesting you might see or know of to Cape Town’s law enforcement. You can do so by telephoning 107 (landline) or phoning 021 480 7700. You can also email [email protected]

Here at Greenpop part of our work focuses on forest and ecosystem restoration, the goal of which is to help repopulate our natural forest areas with endemic trees. Since 2010, with your help, we have been able to plant over 180,000 trees! Through our project, Forests For Life, we form long-term partnerships with small-scale organisations and provide support to plant trees, restore forest and woodland habitats, effectively manage critical catchment areas, and improve the lives of communities that rely on forest resources. You can donate to support our work here.

Bark stripping in Cape Town. Image credit City of Cape Town.

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Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.