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Use of vultures is an important component of traditional medicine, particularly in South Africa and there is evidence to suggest that traditional use is at least partly responsible for the rapid decline of vulture populations in this country. Until very recently, little information on the extent of the trade in animal parts, particularly vultures, for traditional medicine was available. The secretive and illegal nature of vulture use makes it extremely difficult to obtain reliable data on amounts and turnovers of species traded, which is essential to assess potential impacts on species populations.
Research confirms that vultures are used in the traditional medicine industry for a range of purposes, but are believed to be most effective for providing clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence. The main drivers of demand for these uses are betting and gambling, for improved business success, and intelligence in school children. Vulture is also prescribed by traditional healers for various ailments, including headaches.
It is estimated that 160 vultures are sold per annum in eastern South Africa, with some 59,000 consumption events of vulture pieces. The total annual value of sales of vultures to end consumers in eastern South Africa (excluding the costs of vultures as input costs) is estimated at R1,2 million ($US 120k). Various species of vulture are used for traditional medicine; there is no distinct species preference. Vultures traded in the eastern South African markets are harvested by vulture hunters from a range of formally protected and unprotected natural areas in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Lesotho and southern Mozambique. They are killed using shotguns, poisons or traps. Poisoning is the most destructive and widely used method of harvesting as large numbers of vultures are usually killed in one poisoning event. An estimated 1,250 vulture traders, hunters and traditional healers in eastern South Africa are involved in the vulture trade.
With small vulture populations and poor breeding success, the current trade in vultures is not sustainable at the present harvest levels. The implication for people using or trading in vultures is that the benefits currently enjoyed will not be available in 15 to 30 years time.