Gamblers Fuel Trade in "Lucky" Vulture Heads in Africa

By Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
February 25, 2003
Folklore in South Africa has it that the eyesight of vultures is so good that they can see clear into the future.

But now the very physical attribute that helps the keen-eyed scavengers spot a morsel from a distant altitude is resulting in many being poisoned in rural parts of the country.

Poachers are luring them to their deaths so that they may cut off their heads for selling to gamblers who believe the heads are a talisman that magically can help them "see" the country's national lottery numbers.

The discovery of large numbers of headless vultures is causing concern among conservationists that the superstition could pose a serious new danger to the already threatened birds.

Leading South African conservationist Ian Player was the first to disclose the grisly discoveries to the media. "Vultures are extremely rare. The situation is desperate. What is happening is very sad, and the belief that the vulture's head brings fortune seems to be written into African folklore," he said.

An eminent author and historian on African spiritualism and traditional medicine, Credo Mutwa, said there is no basis in folklore that vulture heads can foretell winning numbers in a lottery. The belief that vulture heads brought luck was not only misguided, Mutwa said. "It is punishable in terms of traditional practice to kill a vulture."

The Zulu name for vulture was Inqe, Mutwa said, which meant purifier because it ate things that were dead. "When a sangoma (traditional medicine healer) throws the so-called bones, included in the lineup is the vulture's beak, and it symbolizes death. The vulture indeed enjoys the protection of the Zulu king. Anyone caught killing a vulture could (theoretically) be sentenced to death by the king," Mutwa said.

Unscrupulous Dealers

South African newspaper reports have been quoting sources in the African traditional medicine trade as saying that there is a flourishing trade in vulture heads, reaching the point where unscrupulous dealers in traditional plants and animal parts are commissioning poachers to obtain the parts.

Poachers are paid a few hundred rand (the South African currency) per head. Their job is to kill the bird, sever its head and subject it to a drying process that ensures it does not decay or disintegrate. The dealers in turn may sell a well-preserved head for as much as R8,000 ($1,000).

South Africa's national lottery started only a few years ago, and with more and more of the country's many poor and illiterate people clamoring for its big payouts, fears are that the vulture killings could increase unless action is taken urgently.

Gerhard Verdoorn, director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) of South Africa, is not overly pessimistic. Poisoning of vultures for muti, as traditional medicines are called, has been going on for many years, he said. Not only the heads but many other parts get used, as EWT inspectors find when they inspect places where muti is sold.

Reports of vulture killings are nothing new, Verdoorn said. They come in every year. Over the past three years more than 200 deaths were reported from the KwaZulu Natal province alone. A substantial number was also reported from an area close to the Kruger National Park.

"But we have been having considerable success in catching the culprits and helping the law-enforcement authorities secure sentences for killing these protected species," Verdoorn said. "The killings are invariably the work of syndicates. Break these, and immediately there is a reduction in deaths. We get at them by canvassing support from farmers, game rangers, and local communities to report their activities," he said.

Bearded Vulture

News of the vulture poisonings has coincided with the release of an alarming report on a suspected decline in numbers of South Africa's rare bearded vulture, also known as lammergeyer.

The report from KwaZulu Natal Wildlife, the provincial parks body, said that helicopters were used to map out the birds' nesting sites along the Drakensberg range on the country's eastern seaboard and that only nine nests could be found. This could mean that 70 percent of their population had been wiped out over the past twenty years.

But Sonja Kruger, ecologist for the Drakensberg region, said she did not want to be too alarmed until a ground survey was made. "We are getting better co-operation from farmers and villagers these days," she said. "What worries me, though, is that there have been reports of poisonings on the Lesotho side, and also in places on the South African side," she said.

South Africa's border with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho runs along the top of the Drakensberg, which Kruger said is the only area in southern Africa where the bearded vulture occurs.

Verdoorn shares Kruger's reservations about the survey, even though a 1994 aerial survey found 740 birds, including 212 breeding pairs. But the 1994 census was preceded by a comprehensive survey on the ground to determine the location of nests, which are difficult to pinpoint because the vultures do not defecate on the rocks to mark the sites and their nests are normally hidden in deep cavities.

"There might have been a decline, but I cannot believe it could be anything as dramatic as suggested," Verdoorn said. "My belief is that the picture looks better. We have worked hard at educating people on the importance of these vultures, and they have become so popular that I am sure people will report it if they find any of them dead," he said.

Verdoorn believes vulture populations have generally stabilized throughout South Africa. "People are using poisons more responsibly. We teach them how to use [poison] if they still have to use it, but we try to educate them not to use it at all," Verdoorn said. "We now have more than 200 vulture restaurants in the country where they are fed carcasses. With the co-operation of Escom (South Africa's electricity provider), power lines have been fitted with markers in areas where many vultures used to get killed or maimed by flying into the lines. Also, conductors have been insulated on pylons where they roost or nest.

"We have to keep an eye open, but despite setbacks like the muti killings, I believe we are making progress," Verdoorn said.

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