Adult Bearded Vulture soaring over the Maloti-Drakensberg
Part of the activities of the Task Force is for all role-players to get together twice a year to coordinate and plan their work across the range of the species and participants from KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, the Free State and the Eastern Cape attend these meetings which are chaired by the species coordinator, Sonja Krüger. The latest was held in the small Eastern Cape Town of Matatiele and it was great to be able to set in place monitors in some of the areas where monitoring of sites were rather poorly covered among other issues covered during our deliberations.
One of the people attending the discussions is a local community-based guide from this area of the Eastern Cape, Thulesile Nganga*, who has been working among the rural communities in this part of the Bearded Vulture’s range for several years and has gathered a lot of information on the use of local wildlife in the muthi trade of the area. We were rather surprised when he pulled a package from his back-pack which contained the head and a foot of a young Cape Vulture which he purchased from a local dealer!
Thule with a Cape Vulture head and foot bought from a healer in town
Thule also provided us with valuable insights into the demand and uses of Bearded Vultures in particular among the isiXhosa-speaking communities in this part of the Eastern Cape. Although some of the aspects mentioned hereafter need further investigation, it is quite frightening to think of the impact that these use have on the Bearded Vulture in addition to the other factors that contribute to the current conservation status of this species.
At this stage there are 6-7 traditional healers practicing their trade in this area and each of them use at least one vulture in a year. Bearded Vultures are by far the most sought-after species of vulture to be used in these parts and their relative rarity probably contributes to the greater demand and higher status. Traditional healers prefer that birds are captured alive as the head needs to be removed while it is still living so that “the brain does not flow down into the spinal chord” and the muthi loses its potency. Birds are often shot out of the air with a bow and arrow and the grounded bird is then killed. This contradicts the use of poison which is wide-spread elsewhere in South Africa and the rest of the continent. The use of poison is however a far easier, less time-consuming and cheaper way of getting hold of birds and could over time replace this belief and practice in the area.
The range of uses of vulture parts in this area is also considerably wider compared to our current knowledge of practices elsewhere. Although vultures are also used for clairvoyant purposes here, and betting on soccer and horse-races, were specifically mentioned, the following information was also obtained:
• Vulture bones are used during circumcision ceremonies. Due to the secretive nature of these rituals, the exact purpose and beliefs in this regard are poorly understood
• Vulture feathers are popular items of decoration with young boys
• The bill is used to protect young herd boys in the mountains
• Talons are burnt and used in a mixture of herbs to treat fever in children
• There is a higher demand for vulture parts during certain cultural events
Information about area-specific beliefs and uses of vulture parts are vitally important in assessing the scope and extent of the threat that this poses for an endangered species such as the Bearded Vulture. The recent establishment of a Zululand Raptor Working Group in partnership with the Wildlands Conservation Trust will in time also be of similar value to acquire more substantive information on vulture uses from this area. It is currently known that vulture populations in Zululand are under severe pressure from harvesting of birds for use in traditional medicine and information acquired through the community based fieldworkers will assist in expanding our knowledge and play an important role in determining our future strategies to address this threat.
*Name has been changed to protect the informant’s identity