Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Seeking Lotto riches, South Africans smoke vulture brains

Smoking dried vulture brains to have a vision of winning Lotto numbers — that’s why customers come to Scelo, a vendor of traditional medicines, but it’s a trend being blamed for killing off South Africa’s vultures.

“Vultures are scarce. I only have one every three or four months,” said Scelo, a young healer in downtown Johannesburg’s muti market.

“Everybody asks for the brain. You see things that people can’t see. For Lotto, you dream the numbers,” he said.

Rolled into a cigarette or inhaled as vapours, vulture brains can also help at the horse races, boost an exam performance, or lure more clients to a business, according to believers.

Next to snake skins and ostrich feet, as well as donkey fat to chase away bad spirits, Scelo sells a tiny bottle with just a speck of ground brains for about R50.

The entire bird could go for R2 000. Vulture bones or feathers can be also mixed with herbs to make medicines, said one nyanga, or traditional healer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We make the brain dry and mix it with mud and you smoke it like a cigarette or a stick. Then the vision comes,” he said.

He prescribes mainly vulture heads, which he says bring visions of the future, endowing users with the bird’s excellent vision that helps them fly out of nowhere to descend on carcasses.

It’s a belief shared along Africa’s east coast, as well as in some West African countries, according to experts.

Mthembeni wanted to buy a blend of ground brains and beaks — not for himself, but to give to his dogs.

“I put it on their nose. Then they can detect any strange presence from kilometres away. It gives security to my family,” the young Zulu said before turning away, dismayed at the price.

At least 160 vultures are sold each year for muti, according to a study by two wildlife groups.

Researcher Steve McKean estimates that up to 300 vultures are killed by a variety of causes, especially in the eastern province of Kwazulu-Natal, where poaching still goes largely unpunished.

“Traditional use as it is currently happening is likely to render vultures extinct in southern Africa on its own within 20-30 years,” he said.

“Vultures are protected by law,” he said, but that so far has been ineffective. McKean said improved public awareness and a better understanding of the trade in the birds was needed.

Seven of the nine species of vulture are considered endangered. Hunters shoot them, trap them or poison them with a pesticide called Aldicarb, which is deadly to humans, according to the group Ezemvelo Kwazulu-Natal Wildlife.

Scelo said he knows how to avoid the pesticide: “The meat is blue when it’s poisoned.”

Aside from hunters, vultures also face the threat of electrocution if they fly into high-voltage lines or drown in farm reservoirs, all the while coupled with a shortage of food and the loss of their habitat.

Despite the danger to the bird’s survival, demand remains steady, according to vendors in downtown Johannesburg, who are little aware that they are contributing to the disappearance of certain animals and plants.

Among the stalls stacked with python and crocodile skins, two animals also threatened by the demand for muti, nyanga Samsum Mvubu ponders the real importance of the vultures.

“I don’t believe that these things give you visions,” he said. “But they do bring you luck.” – AFP

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?

Local elections: Water tops the agenda in Limpopo’s dry villages

People in the Fetakgomo Tubatse local municipality, who have to collect water from Motse River, are backing independent candidates because they’re tired of parties’ election promises

More top stories

Conservation boosts cattle farmers

By adopting sound grazing practices livestock owners get access to markets in a foot-and-mouth disease red zone near the Kruger National Park

COP26 touted to resolve long standing issues on climate debt

Only 16% of losses in South Africa from weather-related disasters in the past four decades were covered by insurers, leaving governments and communities unable to build back

Most climate science is written by white men

In deciding how the world responds to the climate crisis, policymakers rely on research that tends to be written predominantly by men in the Global North

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×