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Aspects of the use of vultures in traditional medicine in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and conservation implications.

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Eighty percent of people in developing countries use traditional medicine either as a primary source of healthcare or as supplementary to western medicine. Traditional medicines are mainly derived from wild plants and animals. There has been a marked global increase in the use of animals and their body parts as ingredients in traditional medicine. The harvesting and use of wildlife resources in traditional medicine are largely unregulated and involve many species of conservation concern. This is true for African vultures, as evidence indicates that traditional medicine is responsible for 29% of African vulture mortalities. Currently, six out of seven vulture species in South Africa face a serious threat of extinction. The threatened species are listed under the Threatened or Protected Species regulations, which prohibit hunting and consumption. However, evidence suggests a long-standing use of vultures in traditional medicine in KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa, yet so much remains unknown about this practice. Understanding the belief system and the socio-economic dispositions underpinning the belief-based use of vultures will favour vulture conservation efforts in the province. Research was undertaken with the aim of advancing the knowledge base regarding the use of vultures in traditional medicine in KwaZulu-Natal. Accordingly, the following objectives were established: 1) to assess human-vulture interactions in a dynamic ecosystem, 2) to evaluate the dynamics behind the illegal harvesting and trade of vultures and their body parts, 3) to investigate the ethnomedicinal use of vultures by traditional health practitioners and 4) report on the efficacy of religion as an alternative for traditional medicine use. The study involved local communities surrounding protected areas and specific groups such as hunters, muthi traders, and traditional healers. A mixed-methodology approach was adopted, and data were collected using questionnaire surveys, in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and observations. A total of 728 respondents contributed to this study. Local people’s perceptions towards vultures were predominantly positive. Respondents appreciated vultures for removing carcases, thus keeping the environment clean. Results also demonstrated that hunting and wildlife consumption were common in the study areas, and that the hunting and use of vultures were a part of this. Vultures were harvested from protected areas and sold directly to traditional healers and also to muthi traders. Vultures were reportedly important in traditional medicine, but their harvesting was limited because it was perceived as a criminal activity, and the birds reportedly occurred in smaller numbers than before. In traditional medicine, seven vulture parts were used, but the head treated the majority (62%) of ailments reported. Seventy-one percent of the uses for vulture-based remedies were spiritual in nature. Religious practices such as church attendance, prayer and fasting, coupled with products like holy water, can provide relief from physical and psychological ailments. In this study, the role of religion in contributing positively to human health and well-being was underscored. Overall, results from this study can be instrumental in guiding efforts to improve vulture conservation in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of South Africa.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.