The use of vultures in African Traditional Medicine: a constitutional right, or a jailable offence?

By Dr Lindy Thompson 

Vultures are the most highly threatened group of birds on the planet. In the 1990s, vulture populations in Nepal, Pakistan, and India plummeted in what scientists termed the ‘Asian Vulture Crisis’. About two decades later, similar declines in vulture populations were observed in Africa, prompting leading vulture biologists and conservationists to warn governments about the ‘African Vulture Crisis’.  

Currently, across Africa, the main threats to vultures are widely recognized as 

  • Poisoning 
  • Collisions and electrocutions on energy infrastructure 
  • The illegal trade in vultures for bushmeat and African Traditional Medicine.  

Here, I refer specifically to African Traditional Medicine to distinguish it from Chinese Traditional Medicine, as many other wildlife parts and whole animals from Africa tend to end up in Asian markets. Vultures, on the other hand, are illegally trapped, killed, transported, sold, bought, and used in traditional medicine right here in Africa. This practice is most common in West Africa, decimating vulture populations in many countries. While vultures are killed for this purpose to a lesser extent in South Africa, it still happens, most commonly in KwaZulu-Natal province, where poisoning has caused the local extinction of breeding White-headed Vultures (a Critically Endangered species). Here in the Lowveld too, vultures are used in Traditional Medicine; a recent study estimated that one association of Traditional Health Practitioners based in Bushbuckridge uses 400-800 vultures a year. 

In South Africa, vultures are protected at various levels. Under NEMBA (the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act) No. 10 of 2004, threatened species are protected, biodiversity use must be sustainably managed, and ‘Protection of threatened or protected species’ (ToPS) Regulations control the trade in (and possession of) vultures and their parts. All six (6) vulture species found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces are given the highest level of protection. The non-permitted capture, killing, movement, sale, purchase, and/or possession of vultures and/or their body parts constitutes a contravention of the provisions of the Limpopo Environmental Management Act (LEMA) No. 7 of 2003 and can result in a fine of up to R250,000 or imprisonment of up to 15 years. In Mpumalanga province, the maximum fine is unspecified, and the maximum jail sentence is five years. 

Despite these penalties, the practice of killing vultures for Traditional Medicine continues, and convictions for these offences are the exception. Indeed, Section 31 of the South African constitution protects its citizens’ rights to practice their cultures and religions, which, when considering the use of vulture parts in African Traditional Medicine, seemingly conflicts with the need to protect and conserve these birds. Our country’s new Vulture Biodiversity Management Plan highlights that ‘the indiscriminate killing of vultures for use in traditional medicine is unsustainable’. In my experience of working with fellow vulture conservationists and researchers over the last 10 years, whether an expert advocates for or against allowing the use of vultures in Traditional Medicine depends on their upbringing and the culture they experienced in their childhood home. A possible solution that has been proposed which could appease both vulture conservationists and Traditional Healers who wish to use vulture parts could be based on an example from the USA. There, Native Americans can apply for permits to receive body parts (such as feathers) of protected bird of prey species (Golden and Bald Eagles) for religious purposes. Whether such a policy would work in South Africa would depend on effective enforcement and policing of environmental laws, which is currently presenting a challenge for our understaffed and underfunded provincial nature conservation bodies. 

Hooded Vulture

In the Lowveld, we are incredibly lucky to still see wild free-flying vultures on a daily basis. It is worth remembering that some areas in South Africa are no longer as fortunate. So I encourage you, next time you step outside, to pause for a minute and look up, and see if you can spot one of these magnificent birds, soaring effortlessly against the blue sky. Vultures are part of our natural heritage, and regardless of our individual perspectives regarding the use of vultures in Traditional Medicine, we need to work together to conserve these irreplaceable birds for future generations. 

References: 

Henriques, M., Buij, R., Monteiro, H., Sá, J., Wambar, F., Tavares, J.P., Botha, A., Citegetse, G., Lecoq, M., Catry, P. and Ogada, D., 2020. Deliberate poisoning of Africa’s vultures. Science, 370(6514), pp.304-304. 

Mashele, N.M., Thompson, L.J. and Downs, C.T., 2021. Uses of vultures in traditional medicines in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region, South Africa. Journal of Raptor Research, 55(3), pp.328-339. 

Ogada, D., Shaw, P., Beyers, R.L., Buij, R., Murn, C., Thiollay, J.M., Beale, C.M., Holdo, R.M., Pomeroy, D., Baker, N. and Krüger, S.C., 2016. Another continental vulture crisis: Africa’s vultures collapsing toward extinction. Conservation Letters, 9(2), pp.89-97. 

Pain, D.J., Cunningham, A.A., Donald, P.F., Duckworth, J.W., Houston, D.C., Katzner, T., Parry-Jones, J., Poole, C., Prakash, V., Round, A. and Timmins, R., 2003. Causes and effects of temporospatial declines of Gyps vultures in Asia. Conservation Biology, 17(3), pp.661-671. 

Thompson, L.J. and Blackmore, A.C., 2020. A brief review of the legal protection of vultures in South Africa. Ostrich, 91(1), pp.1-12. 

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