South Africans smoke vulture brains

December 27, 2009 12:00 am

, JOHANNESBURG, Dec 27 – Smoking dried vulture brains to have a vision of winning lotto numbers — that\’s why customers come to Scelo, a vendor of traditional medicines, but it\’s a trend being blamed for killing off South Africa\’s vultures.

"Vultures are scarce. I only have one every three or four months," said Scelo, a young healer in downtown Johannesburg\’s market for "muti", or traditional medicine.

"Everybody asks for the brain. You see things that people can\’t see. For lotto, you dream the numbers," he said.

Rolled into a cigarette or inhaled as vapors, vulture brains can also help at the horse races, boost an exam performance, or lure more clients to a business, according to believers.

Next to snake skins and ostrich feet, as well as donkey fat to chase away bad spirits, Scelo sells a tiny bottle with just a speck of ground brains for about 50 rands (6.50 dollars, 4.50 euros).

The entire bird could go for 2,000 rands. Vulture bones or feathers can be also mixed with herbs to make medicines, said one nyanga, or traditional healer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We make the brain dry and mix it with mud and you smoke it like a cigarette or a stick. Then the vision comes," he said.

He prescribes mainly vulture heads, which he says bring visions of the future, endowing users with the bird\’s excellent vision that helps them fly out of nowhere to descend on carcasses.

It\’s a belief shared along Africa\’s east coast, as well as in some west African countries, according to experts.

Mthembeni wanted to buy a blend of ground brains and beaks — not for himself, but to give to his dogs.

"I put it on their nose. Then they can detect any strange presence from kilometres away. It gives security to my family," the young Zulu said before turning away, dismayed at the price.

At least 160 vultures are sold each year for muti, according to a study by two wildlife groups.

Researcher Steve McKean estimates that up to 300 vultures are killed by a variety of causes, especially in the eastern province of Kwazulu-Natal, where poaching still goes largely unpunished.

"Traditional use as it is currently happening is likely to render vultures extinct in southern Africa on its own within 20-30 years," he said.

"Vultures are protected by law," he said, but that so far has been ineffective. McKean said improved public awareness and a better understanding of the trade in the birds was needed.

Seven of the nine species of vulture are considered endangered. Hunters shoot them, trap them or poison them with a pesticide called Aldicarb, which is deadly to humans, according to the group Ezemvelo Kwazulu-Natal Wildlife.

Scelo said he knows how to avoid the pesticide: "The meat is blue when it\’s poisoned."

Aside from hunters, vultures also face the threat of electrocution if they fly into high-voltage lines or drown in farm, all the while coupled with a shortage of food and the loss of their habitat.

Despite the danger to the bird\’s survival, demand remains steady, according to vendors in downtown Johannesburg, who are little aware that they are contributing to the disappearance of certain animals and plants.

Among the stalls stacked with python and crocodile skins, two animals also threatened by the demand for muti, nyanga Samsum Mvubu ponders the real importance of the vultures.

"I don\’t believe that these things give you visions," he said. "But they do bring you luck."


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