Downward spiral of dying vultures

A vulture at the Vulpro rehabilitation centre in Pretoria. Conservationists are extremely concerned about the dwindling bird population. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

A vulture at the Vulpro rehabilitation centre in Pretoria. Conservationists are extremely concerned about the dwindling bird population. (Theana Breugem, Gallo)

The vulture’s head sticks out of a bottle, its eye sockets sunken and face feathers ruffled from handling. The bottle stands among many others, although their contents are not as easily recognisable.

Mounds of herbs rise like hills from pallets on the floor, which are strewn with snake skins and gemsbok forelegs. It smells of strange earthy spices and curing meat.
The Mai Mai bazaar in downtown Johannesburg is open for business.

Traditional medicine is one of the many threats facing the country’s and Africa’s endangered vulture populations, which also include poisoning, wind turbines and power lines.

“They [vultures] play an important ecological role,” says André Botha, the manager of the birds of prey programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). “When they disappear, people will [finally] notice.”

They are mainly scavengers and, with their very corrosive stomach acid, are able to digest the pathogens in carcasses. This inhibits the spread of disease, to both animals and humans.

Clever birds
Vusi, an inyanga (traditional doctor), sits next to his pallet at the market and business is slow on an overcast Monday with few people milling about.

“Vultures are very clever birds,” he explains. “It goes up very high – phezulu,” he points up to the metal roof, “and from there it can see and smell [the carcass] and comes straight down.”

That is why the brain is particularly important to traditional healers, which, Vusi says, is in demand.

It can be used to “open the mind” and make people smarter. “You sniff a bit [of dried, powdered vulture’s brain], you sneeze and it opens the mind to make you see more.”

Asked how much it would cost me, he holds his thumb and forefinger a centimetre apart. “You only need a little bit. That will be R100. A lot of people want it.”

Lover’s tiff
Three men sit around a pallet at one of the market’s entrances, and one is cutting skin from a dried gemsbok foreleg. They speak on condition of anonymity.

“If you have a lover’s tiff, it’s a way to get your lover back. If [the vulture] is dried and you blow it into the air, saying ‘my lover, my lover, what went wrong, come back’, it will bring your lover back,” one says.

They do not sell vulture, but Vusi, who does, knows that there are very few left in the country.

“We get these things from game reserves. Obviously we steal it,” he says, smiling at his own cunning.

He has “guys” in KwaZulu-Natal who poison the birds and then it is “easy”.

Endangered
The bearded vulture, “whose range in Southern Africa is restricted to the Maluti-Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and Lesotho, is classified as endangered and continues to decline in numbers”, SANParks says on its website.

It is estimated that there are only 2 400 breeding pairs of the Cape vulture, the only vulture endemic to Southern Africa.

“We think that about 160 birds are used and traded per year,” Steve McKean, a resources ecologist from Ezembelo KZN Wildlife, told the SANParks savannah science network meeting in the Kruger National Park earlier this year. “But we think it could be as high as 240.”

In a document for the EWT, he wrote that: “There are some 59 000 consumption events of vulture pieces annually in this region. The total annual value of sales of vultures to end consumers in eastern South Africa (excluding the costs of vultures as input costs) is estimated at R1 185 600.”

Botha says: “The rate of our decline is starting to lean towards that of Asia, but due to a wider spectrum of reasons.” In the early 1990s, an anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac was used on livestock in southern Asia, mainly Nepal and India, and was found to be poisonous for vultures that fed on the carcasses.

Population decline
“The vulture populations [there] declined from 62-million to about 60 000,” Botha says.

But “it’s easier to address the problem if you have a single cause [as in Asia]”, whereas in Southern Africa vultures face “poisoning, power lines, persecution, loss of habitat, [and] the muti trade”, he says.

Regarding power lines and wind turbines, Botha says that the EWT engages Eskom and the department of environmental affairs to ensure that these structures are not erected in vulture habitats.

“For wind turbines, you know where the birds fly most and at what altitude. You can advise developers to locate plants where birds are less likely to fly,” he says.

But poisoning, whether for traditional medicine or by farmers, is the greatest threat to vultures.

Poisoned
In December last year, 46 Cape griffon vultures were found poisoned near two sheep carcasses on a farm near Molteno in the Eastern Cape. In June that year, 65 Cape griffon vultures were killed in the Swartberg, and after that 37 African white-backed vultures were poisoned in Hluhluwe-Mfolozi for use in traditional medicine, according to the conservation organisation Griffon Poison Information Centre.

But in other African countries the decline is even more serious. Botha says: “It is estimated that, in West African countries, vulture populations have declined 90% in the last 30 years. In East Africa, it is less so, with about a 30% decline. In southern Africa, it is the same for some species.”

He says that, last year, in the Caprivi in Namibia, between 400 and 600 birds were killed in a single case of poisoning. “It’s so widespread and difficult to manage and control.”

“Vulture poisoning has been associated with elephant poaching [as] vultures show the presence of a carcass [by circling overhead]. If they eradicate the birds from a particular area, they can carry on and do their poaching.”

To tackle the vulture trade for traditional medicine, one option is to farm vultures, so that people do not poach them in the wild. But Vusi shakes his head. “You can’t do that. You can’t treat it like a cow.”

As part of the traditional healers’ certification process, they must keep a list of animals they are allowed to trade and those they are not. Vulture is on the list of forbidden creatures, along with rhino horn, lion and leopard, Vusi says. He is not worried about the police raiding his shop or catching him selling contraband products: “There’s also muti for police – to make them stay away.”

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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