Downward spiral of dying vultures

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”.

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.

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.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Hunters should stop using lead bullets and help save the vultures

A new threat to vultures is emerging: lead poisoning from ammunition used by game hunters

Jo’burg’s Mai Mai muthi market is more than a place of trading, it’s home to many

For decades the people who live and work at the bazaar have been part of the migrant system that separates families.

Strong muti powers Zuma’s survival

Or so it seems, as the president - despite his myriad problems - sweeps all before him.

Marikana commission: Strikers used muti, believed they were invincible

Striking Marikana mineworkers had performed muti rituals and believed they were unassailable before the massacre, heard the Farlam commission.

Poachers poison 183 vultures to cover their tracks

Poachers in Zimbabwe have poisoned 183 vultures in a single event, in an attempt to prevent authorities from being alerted to their own whereabouts.

Leopard pelt trader gets off scot-free

Conservationists suspect political interference after muti man's trial is thrown out of court.

Subscribers only

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday