School of Life Sciences

Dr Nomthandazo Samantha Manqele with her mother, Nokuthula (left) and sister, Thobile.

Use of Vultures in Traditional Medicine Explored

A study on the use of vultures in traditional medicine in KwaZulu-Natal and the conservation implications of this practice secured Dr Nomthandazo Samantha Manqele a PhD in Ecological Sciences.

From a family of four children at Adams Mission near Durban, Manqele says a relationship with wildlife was not a feature of life in her semi-rural setting. She nurtured a love of nature, however, and a school trip to the Umbogavango Nature Reserve cemented her desire to pursue a career in the natural sciences.

After completing her schooling, she wanted to study further. Former students at KwaMakhutha Comprehensive High School who were studying at UKZN visited and assisted scholars with applications to the Institution.

Helped with registration and application fees by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and with accommodation by her mother and her cousin who was studying Social Work, Manqele was accepted for a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Environmental Management. She progressed to do a Bachelor of Science Honours in Geography and Environmental Management, after which she undertook an internship with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife that provided her with more conservation skills and reinforced Manqele’s desire to pursue a career in nature conservation.

She did her master’s degree at UKZN supported by funding from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).  In the study she assessed the drivers and impact of illegal hunting for bushmeat and trade on serval and oribi in South Africa, focusing particularly on the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Supervised by Professor Trevor Hill, she interviewed hunters who killed the animals for their skins, meat and for use in traditional medicine.

This research spurred her on to her PhD study, also funded by SANBI, which looked specifically at the use of vultures, currently the most threatened group of raptors in the world, by traditional healers, focusing on study sites in Zululand. Supervised by South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape Professor Colleen Downs and SANBI’s Dr Sarah-Anne Selier, Manqele found that while animals do not have intrinsic medicinal properties as plants do, in traditional medicine there are practices aimed at facilitating the extraction of attributes and/or behavioural traits of animals for belief-based uses, such as retrieving stolen goods, bringing back lost lovers, acquiring intelligence or good fortune and so forth.

In vultures, people have observed what they interpret as a “sixth sense” or clairvoyant ability as the birds detect the presence of carcasses across huge distances. This perceived quality, and the increasing scarceness of vultures, makes them a sought-after element in traditional medicine.

Manqele’s research was challenging yet enlightening, as she encountered traditional healing practices that were unfamiliar to her, seeing slaughtered endangered animals, and in some cases, interviewing people involved in the illegal trade.

Putting her own assumptions aside was important, and Manqele found that people were intrigued by vultures and did not want them to disappear as they acknowledged them being part of their natural heritage and their value in clearing the environment of carcasses as well as their importance in traditional medicine.

Manqele also explored hunting practices and what was luring vultures outside of protected areas they have retreated to, saying that they were being hunted using poison and firearms, with bird killings increasing.

Despite the risks involved in some of her experiences, Manqele completed the important study and was able to provide feedback to tribal authorities and contribute to the drafting of a management plan for vultures with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. She is more driven than ever to contribute to conservation that meets the needs of both people and wildlife.

During her research, Manqele became aware of other issues such as stock theft that affect livelihoods, motivating her to pursue research that results in action and solutions to problems that people in rural areas face.

Manqele has worked as an ad hoc lecturer in Human Geography at UKZN and has taken up a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Vaal University of Technology this year to examine the impacts and evidence of climate change at World Heritage Sites and implications for tourism.

Manqele has grown through her experiences at UKZN, conducting some of her research through COVID-19 lockdowns which led her and Dr Madonna Vezi to start a virtual “ladies’ network” called The Girls Meet that created space for women to speak about certain topics and encourage each another to maintain positive mental health.

Manqele thanked her daughter and her mother for their sacrifices and patience as well as both her supervisors, particularly Downs, who provided motherly support and care.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan