Monkey paws at Durban's muthi market

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.

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A trader sells plant muthi. Hanging behind the stall are the skins of honey badgers and other animals that are prized for their supposed medicinal qualities, but are often on the edge of extinction.

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.

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A variety of animal body parts on the table including the head of a White-backed vulture.

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.

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Every year, about 20 000 tonnes of indigenous plants are used to create ‘cures’ for various ailments.

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.

muthi- traders

Two muthi traders pose in front of a hyaena skin. Many such traders are unaware of the impacts their stock is having on species numbers. [Image has been edited to disguise their identity]

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.

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David Johnson

Many of David’s friends think of him as a talker rather than a writer, but when he is able to keep quiet for extended periods of time and look down at the keyboard, he can also write and does it well. After a decade spent working as a town planning and environmental lawyer and drafting agreements only five people would read, he realised a career change was needed to increase his readership. David is passionate about generating interest on how human population and consumption growth impacts in both wildlife and local communities. ‘It’s such an important topic and much of it remains a taboo,’ he says. ‘Our effects as a species are staggering, yet people are scared of mentioning the human population impacts. It’s the stampeding herd of elephants in the room. Fortunately, I quite like tackling taboos.’ He also disagrees with much of what is currently written about the topic and hopes to cause a bit of a debate. David has embarked on a six-month road trip through South Africa and will write 100 articles for his environmental project ‘Too Much Too Many’. Read our interview with him here and keep up to date with David’s initiative through www.toomuchtoomany.co.za or https://twitter.com/DavidJohnsonSA

  • Louis van Tonder

    WHY DISGUISE THEIR IDENTITY????

  • Ericka

    re previous comment. yes, why disguise them? i have many pictures of this market and the sellers just think they’re making a living: its the confluence of “traditional beliefs,” raging ignorance, cruelty and species decimation, and economic realities.

  • Sharon Brideau

    stupid humans .

  • David Johnson

    A couple of people have asked why faces are concealed, they aren’t on the longer version of the article on my website! http://www.toomuchtoomany.co.za/blog/2013/7/28/need-a-monkey-paw-i-know-the-place-to-go

  • dennis dye

    Insane zombies that do not listen or hear the music of the Earth……I,ME,MINE.

  • vaffangool

    Who cares about the sustainability of this grisly trade? Poverty is no excuse for genocide; muthi is a meritless practice which makes a mockery of “cultural value”.

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