-Alarmed by declining numbers, conservationists are raising awareness of the critical environmental role these efficient scavengers play.
Harare, Zimbabwe – Early last year, Sekuru Shumba, a traditional healer, had an altercation with a client that led to a fistfight.
Shumba, who has been practicing his trade for over five years, says the client owed him about 300 United States dollars, the average fee for his services.
“The client refused to pay after a healing session. I wasn’t happy about this, and we had a fight. The client reported me to the police,” he says.
In a moment of panic, Shumba, who prefers to use his totem for fear of arrest, sought traditional remedies to “evade arrest.” A partner he worked with advised him to look for a vulture’s feathers to make the impending arrest fly away — as high as the bird does.
Shumba then went on a quest to find the feathers. He found one on a mountain just over a mile from his home. He burned it into ash, mixed it with skin jelly and occasionally smeared the paste all over his body while chanting words of “refusing the crime.”
“It’s been months since the case was reported to the police, and they haven’t come to arrest me. I believe the procedure worked,” he says.
Use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine is common in Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa, where it is widely believed that they can give one strength and even the ability to see into the future.
While traditional healers have their own ways of using what is harvested from the birds, attributes assigned to each body part make them highly sought after. Healers use the bird’s head, for instance, in rituals to predict the future.
They seek its claws for strength, while the bones are widely believed to heal arthritis, despite the lack of scientific evidence. A vulture’s feathers are believed to have the power to chase away bad luck and evil spirits.
Demand for vulture body parts has contributed to the birds’ declining population, which in turn threatens the ecosystem’s sustainability.
According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s vulture management plan for 2018 to 2022, vultures help to clean up the environment and inhibit the spread of diseases like anthrax and rabies.
“A single vulture provides over 11,000 [United States dollars] worth of ecosystem services for its cleaning services,” the plan reads.
GRAPHICS BY MATT HANEY, GPJ
Research conducted in 2021 by BirdLife Zimbabwe, a nonprofit organization that promotes the survival of birds, identifies traditional medicine as contributing to declining vulture populations, accounting for 29% of vulture deaths.
Poisoning, according to the study, led to 61% of deaths, while collision with powerlines and wind farms, often leading to electrocution, caused 9%.
The declining vulture numbers have alarmed conservationists and led BirdLife Zimbabwe to intensify campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of killing the birds.
Leeroy Gerald Moyo, the organization’s extinctions programs manager, says the country hopes to avoid what happened in India between 1992 and 2007, when the populations of three vulture species dropped 97% to 99%, an unprecedented decline.
The near-extinction of this efficient scavenger, caused by the ingestion of the drug diclofenac from cattle carcasses, was linked to the spread of zoonotic diseases and increased incidences of rabies in the country.
Efforts to save the birds have led Zimbabwe to recognize vultures as an especially protected bird through the Parks and Wildlife Act.
In addition, key components of the country’s vulture management plan include strategies such as research and monitoring, habitat protection, community engagement, law enforcement, powerline mitigation, rehabilitation and captive breeding to address threats to vultures, as well as international collaboration to ensure the bird’s long-term survival.
In the last 50 years, populations of 7 of 11 African vulture species have declined by 80% to 97% on the continent, with five species now designated as critically endangered.
In Zimbabwe, three vulture species are classified as “near threatened.” They are: the white-backed vulture, the lappet-faced vulture and the hooded vulture. All are hunted for their body parts.
Tinashe Farawo, the head of corporate communications at Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, says the authority is working with partners to protect the endangered vulture species through awareness campaigns and habitat protection.
GRAPHICS BY MATT HANEY, GPJ
In Africa, the threat to vulture populations isn’t confined to Zimbabwe.
According to BirdLife International, more than 387 vultures were poisoned in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique between 2017 and early 2018.
In West Africa, according to the Vulture Conservation Foundation, which works toward the recovery of vulture species, more than 2,000 critically endangered hooded vultures were poisoned in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia between 2019 and 2022.
A Life and Environment 2018 study says vulture populations have been declining drastically over the past 30 years, with bird kills for use in traditional medicine cited as a primary cause.
Poisoning remains the biggest cause of vulture deaths, says Moyo, with BirdLife Zimbabwe. This can be primary poisoning, in which vultures are directly targeted, or secondary poisoning, which happens when other animals are targeted and vultures feed on the poisoned carcasses.
Prince Sibanda, secretary of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, acknowledges that a belief in vultures’ powers has greatly contributed to the birds’ deaths.
“The killing of vultures for their body parts is fuelled by a belief by traditional healers that vultures can cause one to dream of the future, which is not true. So there is need to change the belief,” he says.
Sibanda says healers, aware that killing the birds harms the environment, as they are good cleaners, are now also working to save vultures.
“Our association is having awareness campaign programs … conducting workshops with traditional healers and outreach programs, hoping that this will change beliefs around using vultures as medicine,” he says.
Sikhonzaphi Shoko, a traditional healer, says although she hasn’t used vulture parts in her treatments, she knows other people do.
“Some people use it to draw crowds to access their services as traditional or apostolic healers,” she says.
Shoko says vultures move quickly to feed on dead animals, have sharp eyesight, fly high and can see animals that have been attacked from a long distance. It is these traits, she explains, that make the birds highly sought after by traditional healers seeking to “transfer” these qualities to clients.
“These are the characteristics that healers seek and believe they can use to give power to people. It is believed that one can see the future in a clearer way, gain power and dominance in society,” she says.
Wilson Koloko, an apostolic faith healer, echoes Shoko’s sentiments. He admits that some members of his religious sect ascribe to beliefs about vultures’ body parts and secretly seek traditional healers’ help to achieve fame.
He describes his experience working with healers he says had powers drawn from the bird.
“The head of a vulture enabled them to see what one was wearing in their absence, including their undergarments, but they did not have power to heal those who were seeking healing,” he says.
Obtaining a vulture’s body parts for rituals, however, isn’t easy, as it not only is illegal but can also cost up to 600 U.S. dollars.
Koloko says Mbare, a local market in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, is a bustling center for the sale of all types of animal parts, including those of vultures, though the bird’s body parts are not traded openly because the practice is illegal.
Under the law, possessing a vulture or its body parts or killing one could be punished with a three-year jail term.
Investigations by Global Press Journal in Mbare led to Sambiri, a seller who asked to be identified through his totem for fear of arrest. He says he could deliver a vulture to a client at a cost of 600 U.S. dollars and sometimes travels as far as neighboring Mozambique to find the bird for potential buyers.
At Mbare, the prices of animal body parts vary among sellers, with a vulture’s head selling for up to 70 U.S. dollars and beaks fetching 50 U.S. dollars apiece. The cost of a feather is 1 U.S. dollar.
Because of the continued trade in the bird’s body parts and its declining numbers, conservationists are calling for stiffer sentences to deter the practice.
The current punishment under the law isn’t enough to deter people from killing vultures, Moyo says.
“We are trying to push for a nine-year sentence. This is a critically endangered species. We have never heard of anyone who was arrested and prosecuted for killing a vulture,” he says.
He says BirdLife Zimbabwe is running awareness campaigns and doing advocacy work, in collaboration with organizations such as Speak Out For Animals, which advocates for animal rights, to push for stiffer legislation.
Shoko, however, has a different perspective and says the government should consider some healers who want to use vultures for the “greater good.”
“When a healer is healing, they are also helping people. There should be a vetting process to allow those who want to use it for good, and give them those vultures that die a natural death; that way they can control the illegal killing of these vultures,” she says.