People's Medicine

In Limpopo province, zoologists Peter and Janine Snyman used a far-sighted strategy to help save a colony of endangered Cape griffon vultures from being wiped out by the muti trade.

About 11 years ago, the Snymans realised that young birds in the colony breeding in the Blouberg Nature Reserve were being sold to local sangomas. The Snymans, who manage the Blouberg Conservation Project, headed for local classrooms and used knowledge as a means of defence. They highlighted the advantages vultures hold for cattle farmers, and noted that vultures do not catch live prey and pose no danger to livestock.

Trying to drive the message of conservation home, the pair found themselves confronted with a typical dilemma.
One young learner agreed that it is important to conserve nature, but noted that putting food into people’s stomachs would always take priority.

At that time, the Snymans estimated that, on average, four or five young birds were lost to the muti trade every season. They decided to bend conventional conservation principles and implemented a reward system for live birds returned to them.

Cursory research indicated that the sangomas were paying between R30 and R80 for a vulture. The Snymans decided to pay R50 per live bird returned to them. They planned to fund the reward project out of their own pockets, but soon realised that the extent of trade in vultures was grossly underestimated. In the first season alone, 44 birds were returned to them.

This was the early 1990s and the purchase of live wild animals from locals was a big no-no. ‘We were widely criticised for our reward system,” Peter explains. ‘People argued that we were creating a market for these birds.

‘However, we felt that the market already existed and we merely acted as an alternative buyer of birds which were destined to be killed for muti.”

Today the Sasol Vulture Study Group, a working group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, funds the reward programme and about 300 vultures have been saved from the muti trade.

‘Initially, we didn’t know how the locals harvested these young birds. We learnt that the young vultures leave their nests after the first rains of the season. At this stage they are fully developed, but their flying skills are lacking so they are earth-bound for a couple of days. While they are walking around on the ground, building up wing strength, they are easy prey,” Peter explains.

‘The reward system is definitely delivering good results for conservation. While we are sure some birds still make their way to the muti trade, we believe the majority is being salvaged.”

The Snymans have also embarked on a cooperation programme with local inyangas and sangomas, whom they have invited to harvest plants in the reserve in exchange for information on plant species and their medicinal uses. The healers have become partners in conservation research.

Peter Snyman proudly relates how a local sangoma recently refused to buy a vulture from a group of children, fearing that the transaction could hamper her good relationship with the Blouberg Conservation Project. ‘She told them to bring the vulture to us,” he says.

Divine dice

But not all wild animals are this fortunate. The traditional healers’ shopping list includes a wide range of mammals,

reptiles, birds and plant species.

In Venda recently a group of children caught a pangolin and took it to their headman. It was held in an empty drum at his

village, waiting for the highest muti-bidder.

Zachariah Ramalimba, a traditional healer in Venda, negotiated to buy the unfortunate pangolin. He said its scales would be used to cure all sorts of ailments and some of its bones would be cooked white and dried to become part of Ramalimba’s

collection of ‘divine” dice.

He explained that pangolins, aardvarks, elephants and vultures can all see into the future. This is why it is often difficult to track down pangolins and aardvarks. ‘They know where you are even if they cannot see you and they will not cross your path.”

According to Ramalimba, elephants have this same gift but are not as shy of people because they are bigger and stronger than pangolins and aardvarks. The bones of these three species are good for making dice to predict the future, but the ultimate view of good fortune ahead lies in the brain of the vulture. Because vultures can spot carcasses from distances at which they would be invisible to the human eye, they are seen to be the ultimate prophets of good fortune.

‘If you eat a vulture’s brain, you will have that gift inside you and you will be able to see into the future. When you sleep, the vulture’s brain will show you a winning horse or the numbers for the next lottery,” said Ramalimba.

Searching for a cure

But while the muti trade is having a severe impact on South Africa’s fauna in some places, most traditional healers are herbalists who can and often do play a crucial part in local health care.

A report titled Searching for a Cure: Conservation of Medicinal Wildlife Resources in East and Southern Africa, recently released by the monitoring NGO Traffic, reports that one-third of health care services in KwaZulu-Natal is based on indigenous medicine and more than 27-million South Africans make use of traditional medicines. The growing demand for muti is attributed to increased urbanisation and rising unemployment, which lead to physical and physiological stress.

But while population growth, urbanisation and commercial collecting are placing natural resources under strain, environmentalists, traditional healers and muti collectors are collaborating towards sustainability.

At a 2001 symposium on the indigenous medicinal plant trade, Gerhard Strydom of the Mpumalanga Parks Board observed that conservation could not be achieved by ‘keeping people out” through creating nature reserves and instituting legal restrictions on the collection of plants. What was required, he said, was to develop regional strategies by collaborating with a number of communities in different ecological zones. Zodwa Khumalo, popularly known as Ma Dlamini among street muti-sellers in the city of Durban, is an organiser for the Self-Employed Women’s Union (Sewu). The union is involved in developing regional strategies for

sustainable management of indigenous medicinal plants, based on a women-centred approach. Since its inception in 1994, Sewu has managed to gain the cooperation of authorities in eThekwini (Durban) municipality for a number of projects.

First Sewu persuaded the municipality to construct permanent stalls near the Durban railway station and interstate bus terminus for a medicinal herb market. Union organisers, with help from researchers and the municipality’s Silverglen Nursery, set up training programmes for muti sellers that focused on sustainable harvesting in the veld and woodlands. Trainees are taught ways to obtain bark from trees and harvest bulbs and roots without causing irreversible damage to plants growing in the wild.

These actions comply with recommendations made in the Traffic report that means should be developed to promote economically viable propagation methods for muti plants. Traffic also suggests that collectors procure animal medicinals from existing ranges and culling operations.

Laws and myths

But the first step has been to recognise that traditional medicine can play a crucial part in South Africa’s health care system. Legislation doing exactly this was recently approved by Parliament.

The Traditional Health Practitioners Bill, which gives formal recognition to the about 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa, was approved in the National Assembly in September 2004.

In terms of the new Bill, all traditional healers will have to register and declare themselves before being allowed to practise traditional medicine. Training guidelines will be set to ensure minimum standards. Only accredited sangomas and nyangas will be allowed to practise, and stiff fines and jail terms will face offenders.

Phephsile Maseko, national coordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation which represents 70 000 practitioners in Southern Africa, describes the legislation as true recognition. ‘They have a huge role to play in HIV/Aids: training, caring, and they also play a role of mediator,” says Maseko.

Within three months of the legislation becoming law, an interim traditional health council will be established, which will draw up regulations and begin implementing the law over a period of three years.

The 25-member council will include nine traditional healers, one from each province. Other council members will be legal experts, department representatives, a doctor from the Health Professionals Council and a pharmacist serving on the South African Pharmacy Council.

Six years ago, research by the Medical Research Council convinced the authorities of the need to regulate traditional medicine, but the key may still lie in Peter and Janine Snyman’s approach — to dispel the myths around the mystic powers of animal parts while collaborating with locals and enhancing the western world’s knowledge of plant medicinals.

The 10 most-wanted

Dani Isaacs

To the uninitiated, the humphead wrasse and ramin might not sound like things you’d want to buy, but this Asian fish and type of timber are among the top 10 on international traders’ shopping lists. According to WWF, the global conservation organisation, these two species are so sought after in some parts of the world that they have joined the ranks of natural resources most at risk from unregulated international trade.

WWF released its biennial list late last year of the world’s 10 most-wanted species, based on threats from unsustainable trade and consumer demand.

They are:

  • Humphead wrasse: Demand has grown steadily for this delicacy which

    usually costs more than R800 a kilo. The fish is being unsustainably harvested, and since it is rare and slow to reproduce, its populations are now suffering greatly.

  • Ramin: This tropical hardwood from Indonesia and Malaysia is used to make mass-produced pool cues, mouldings, doors and picture frames. Ramin grows largely in peat swamp forests, which are increasingly targeted by illegal loggers in search of the valuable wood, putting at risk endangered species such as tigers and orangutans that live in the forest.

  • Tigers: In the last century, the tiger’s numbers have been reduced by 95% — with perhaps fewer than 5 000 tigers left in the wild. Among the biggest threats to the tiger are poaching for the trade in tiger skins and bone for

    traditional Chinese medicines.

  • Great white sharks: The largest of the sharks, the great whites are poached for their jaws, teeth and fins, all of which collect high prices. They’re also threatened because of bycatch in fishing gear, while those that survive are often killed for other valuable parts such as fins.

  • Irrawaddy dolphins: The biggest threat to this rare Asian dolphin is entanglement in fishing nets and injury from explosives used for dynamite fishing.

  • Asian elephants: Poaching of elephants for ivory and meat remains a serious problem in many Asian countries, as does habitat loss. Illegal ivory seizures have been on the increase since 1995, led by high demand in China.

  • Pig-nosed turtles: This giant freshwater turtle — found only in Papua New Guinea — is a popular pet worldwide and its population is suffering from high demand from the international pet trade.

  • Yellow-crested cockatoos: There are fewer than 10 000 of these exotic-

    looking birds. Highly prized by the international pet trade. Indonesia, where they are found, is proposing an end to all international commercial trade in the birds.

  • Leaf-tailed geckos: All 10 species of this type of gecko are found in

    Madagascar. They are being sold at alarming rates into the international

    pet trade.

  • Asian yew trees: Yew trees all over Asia are unsustainably harvested for their bark and needles, which contain a chemical used in cancer medication. If the harvest continues at its current rate, the species may no longer be available for use as a medicine.

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