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.

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