SCIENCE SNIPPETS:

VULTURE CONSERVATION BENEFITS MORE THAN JUST VULTURES

Vultures provide many ecological, economic, and cultural benefits. However, several vulture populations are declining, in part due to the illegal capture and killing of vultures for traditional medicine. In a recently published paper co-authored by EWT scientists*, the authors summarised their findings on the use of vultures in traditional medicines in South Africa.

Interviews with 51 traditional healers in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces of South Africa revealed that traditional healers use both dried and fresh vulture body parts, on their own or mixed with other plants or minerals, to create various medicines. According to the healers interviewed, different body parts treat different ailments. For example, vulture brains are used when a patient is seeking clairvoyant abilities, vulture livers are believed to promote good dreams, vulture hearts increased intelligence, and a general concoction of vulture parts is used when patient is trying to find employment (see the Figure below for more uses).

The various uses of vulture body parts, according to the 51 South African traditional healers that were interviewed by scientists.

The traditional healers claim to have acquired the vulture parts they use through a third party by poisoning or trapping the birds. However, the healers did stress that they prefer vultures captured without the use of poisons, as this method kills multiple birds at once, which is unsustainable for future generations, and it can be harmful to their patients. The vultures cost between ZAR300 and ZAR1,500 for one whole bird. While most healers claimed to use up to two vultures per year, one healer admitted to using up to ten. According to the healers, Cape Vultures provide the most potent medicine, and one bird could last a healer up to six years, but other animals such as the Greater Honeyguide and the Honey Badger can be suitable alternatives to vultures in some medicines.

The authors concluded that traditional healers in the study area consider vulture body parts to be very important components in medicines to treat many different ailments and could use between 400 and 800 birds a year, which is highly unsustainable and could have far-reaching negative consequences for South Africa’s vulture populations. One of the recommendations posed by the authors in the paper was for law enforcement and anti-poisoning measures be increased to conserve the vulture populations in the area, particularly those bordering South African national parks. For more details on the findings and outcomes of the study, please read the full paper here.

* Mashele, N., Thompson, L.J., Downs, C.T. 2021. Uses of Vultures in Traditional Medicines in the Kruger To Canyons Biosphere Region, South Africa. Journal of Raptor Research. https://doi.org/10.3356/JRR-20-36