Need a monkey paw? I know where to go.
I wanted to see if Durban’s muthi (medicine) market was brimming with as many monkey paws, snake skins and owl carcasses as I had heard. Annually the South African traditional muthi trade is worth around R 2.9 billion, dispenses around 128 million courses of medication and employs more than 133 000 people. The demand for the remedies is a menace to many threatened plant and animal species but putting an end to it would be devastating for economic and cultural reasons.
A trader from Mozambique arrived at the market and tipped dead owls and a Snake Eagle from his sack onto the ground beside me. The market is a fascinating, macabre and depressing game walk. When I asked one of the traders why he had so many dead owls, he told me they were evil creatures. ‘If you want to curse someone, a sangoma can use an owl’ he explained. Sangomas are the traditional healers concerned with the psychic world.
Vultures are particularly significant to, and threatened by the trade. Sangomas believe that the superb eyesight of the bird is proof of their clairvoyant powers. As a result vulture body parts are considered useful to foresee the future and can be used, for instance, to predict lottery numbers. One study estimated that 160 vultures are sold for muthi each year and that White-backed vultures in the Zululand area of KwaZulu-Natal, will become extinct in the next quarter of a century due to muthi and other human impacts.
Traditional herbalists, known as inyangas, rely mainly on the medicinal properties of plant parts to concoct cures for various ailments. About 20 000 tonnes of indigenous plants are used annually but, significantly no more than 50 tonnes are cultivated. Increasing demand for muthi is causing the local extinction of popular plant species and, the use of plant material in muthi is often unsustainable. An additional concern is that most of the people involved with gathering the plants, are rural women with few alternative sources of income. Plant extinction threatens their livelihoods and the vegetation.
It may be possible to cultivate some plant species, but that would change the structure of what’s currently an informal trade. However ventures like these would likely be run by corporates and offer few, if any, benefits to many of the existing harvesters. Such plantings would also require land that would impact on other species.South Africa is deeply politically correct. We tend to express collective disgust at the Vietnamese cultural belief that rhino horn can cure rheumatism, but it’s taboo to criticise, or act upon, a South African cultural practice of using vulture parts to help win the lottery. Protected species are clearly displayed all around the market, and I’m told the police only investigate annually and that conservation officials give the market a wide berth. This is presumably because enforcing laws would prevent the exercise of significant cultural activities that are supported by a large section of the public. Can you imagine the outrage if we ignored rhino poaching through fear of offending Vietnamese cultural sensitivities?
There are now more than twice as many South Africans as there were in 1970. Population and consumption growth has not only driven the demand for muthi but has led to the reduction of land that is available to almost all other species. For instance Durban is now surrounded by pine and sugarcane plantations devoid of vultures and other naturally occurring species.
I knew I would be disturbed by the muthi trade’s impact on threatened species but I had not appreciated the fact that the increased demand also threatened aspects of the trade itself and now, in turn, important employment opportunities, health care options and cultural traditions are also at risk. These are all interests worthy of protection. The problem is that the current demand, fueled by our increased population and higher consumption levels, means we can’t simultaneously save all species, economic, cultural and health-care interests.