/ 15 May 2023

Balance needed between vulture conservation and traditional medicine

We have seen a decline in vultures in South Africa over the past 30 years. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

We have seen a decline in vultures in South Africa over the past 30 years. Often misunderstood for their scavenger ways, vultures are nature’s cleaners as without them eating carcasses, disease would spread widely throughout wildlife. These raptors clean up ecosystems

Although endangered, these birds are targeted and killed for various reasons, including through poaching, poisoning, electrocution (when they collide with power lines) and for use in traditional medicine. According to some African cultures, vultures have clairvoyant abilities, bring good luck and chase away evil spirits.

“An estimated 160 vultures are sold yearly in Eastern South Africa … The total annual value of vulture sales in Eastern South Africa is estimated at R1.2 million,” according to research by Myles Mander and Steve Mckean, expert regional ecologists.

Nomthandazo Manqele’s PhD from UKZN researched aspects of the use of vultures in traditional medicine in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and its conservation implications.

Her study looked at how communities living near the birds’ in protected areas interacted with them. She also probed illegal hunting and trade, and the religious context and how to mitigate the dwindling numbers of vultures. 

Manqele found that older people and men were generally more aware of vultures and the need to conserve the species. She also found that vultures were sold for muthi (traditional medicine). 

Manqele made several recommendations on how to conserve the endangered species, the key being community engagement and education on the importance of vultures for the ecosystem, thereby giving people more reasons to conserve them. 

Endangered species

South Africa has a number of resident vulture species. One is critically endangered and four are listed as endangered under the threatened or protected species regulations. All five species may not be hunted or killed, including searching for, pursuing, luring, or injuring with the intention to hunt or kill, except for conservation, enforcement or scientific purposes, Manqele explained. 

“Vultures are threatened and there are various things putting pressure on their population, including habitat loss, food shortages and electrocution,” said Manqele.

Manqele said vultures are a priority species, not only in South Africa but in other African countries, because of their cleaning abilities. Their diminishing number poses a serious health risk to other animals, including people.

Manqele had to put her beliefs and assumptions aside to research the role of vultures in traditional medicine. 

“Traditional medicine is a cultural right. People have the right to practise or use traditional medicine so we cannot tell them to stop using vultures because they are practising what they believe in,” she says. 

Manqele says instead of pushing scientific and conservational agendas, “we have to find a way for science, conservation and culture to coexist without imposing one on another”. 

How people feel about vultures

“I conducted the study in KwaZulu-Natal. I interviewed communities living adjacent to Mkhuze, Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park and Giant’s Castle, which are protected areas where vultures are found. These are the communities we need on our side if we are going to conserve vultures,” she explained. 

“I wanted to know how people feel about vultures. I wanted to know if they are aware that their numbers are declining and how they feel about the threat of extinction. I wanted to know if they are aware that if we continue this way, we might not have vultures in the next 50 years,” she explained. 

Manqele says what she found was that elderly people love and respect nature and are very aware of vultures. 

“They have so much knowledge about vultures. They are attached and really care about these birds. Sadly, many young people just don’t care about nature; they are not interested. We went to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, which is a protected area, and visited communities living around that area. Young people told us that ‘asikaze siyibone ivulture’ (we have never seen a vulture),” she said.

Manqele says this was disappointing and scary. “How are they supposed to protect something if they don’t even know what it looks like?” 

Traditional medicine

Manqele interviewed several healers to understand the role of vultures in traditional medicine.

“I spoke to people who hunt and sell [vultures]. I went to muthi markets in Durban, Dalton as well as a market in Zululand. The market in Zululand was particularly important because I did the bulk of my research there, close to the protected areas where vultures still exist.” 

Manqele said that she found that vultures from protected areas were hunted and sold at the muthi market in Zululand. Whatever was left was taken to the muthi market in Durban. 

“Traditionally, people have studied the behaviour and mannerisms of vultures, on which they have formulated their interpretation of the might of this bird,” Manqele found. 

She learned that traditional healers believe that they can extract the essence of clairvoyance from the bird to get a glimpse into the future. She said that the birds are also used in the ukuthwasa (initiation) process of becoming a traditional healer. However, healers want vultures to thrive. One traditional healer even suggested breeding the birds. 

Manqele said that there is not enough communication between traditional healers and conservationists. The main aim of her research was to generate knowledge regarding the use of vultures in traditional medicine. 

“After learning that vultures were used for spiritual purposes such as clairvoyance, intelligence, bringing back lost things and stolen goods, it seemed as though people were trying to manage their lives a little better,” she said. 

Her research suggests that awareness among communities near protected areas can be used as a source of basic knowledge for programmes to improve vulture conservation. 

“Religion offers solutions to life’s problems. I did a case study at the Nazareth Baptist Church and I looked at what they offer their followers for different problems, especially spiritual problems. They offer prayer, water, candles and church attendance. These things bring them calmness and wellness and do not involve killing wildlife,” said Manqele. 

Manqele admitted that these solutions don’t address the issue of the use of vultures in traditional medicine but religion could perhaps mitigate the problem. 

“The aim was to hear all sides of the story and get everyone’s perspective so that we have better knowledge. Without enough knowledge, we can’t make decisions that will accommodate everyone. Traditional medicine has a place in our community, so we need to find a balance between it and wildlife conservation.”  

Illegal hunting and trade

Another factor that contributed to the decline of vulture numbers is illegal hunting and trade. 

In her research, Manqele found that vultures were hunted by small groups of unemployed men between the ages of 24 and 40. 

“Hunters used multiple hunting techniques but mainly relied on poison and firearms. Livestock carcasses were used as bait to lure vultures out of the protected areas and private game reserves” she says. 

Manqele found that there was a locally established network involving hunters, traditional health practitioners and traders who, upon request, would have vultures hunted and sold to them — with the carcass ranging anywhere from R500 to R2 000. 

“Perceptions shared by the study respondents about vulture hunting and trade alluded to the difficulty in obtaining these birds. This was attributed to the fact that they are protected, and having them in your possession was a risk,” she says. 

Conservation recommendations 

Manqele made some recommendations that might help to balance conservation of the bird with their use in traditional medicine. 

  • Community groups, such as senior males and herders, should be placed at the forefront of conservation initiatives by involving communities as stewards because of their established positive perceptions towards vultures and their conservation. These groups can be useful as providers of knowledge and models for desired behaviours.
  • Find better ways to understand and approach illegal hunting. These approaches should look into the cultural, economic and social conditions that influence the illegal hunting and trade of vultures.
  • A meaningful engagement between conservation practitioners and traditional healers can help find sustainable alternatives that work for everyone. 
  • The use of traditional medicine and the associated over-harvesting of wildlife should be approached from an understanding of social factors affecting communities in these protected areas. These factors include healthcare, income and employment.

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.