Thank You for Not Smoking Bird Brains: The Wack Reason Vultures Are Dying in South Africa

My peek into the dark secrets of Johannesburg's traditional medicine market.

South African Vulture Photo
In South Africa, vultures are being hunted for their brains, which are believed by some to enable clairvoyance if smoked. (Photo: Courtesy of Lucy Cooke)
is an award-winning doc filmmaker, best-selling author, National Geographic explorer, and more.

It’s September 2011 and I’m in a muthi, or traditional medicine market, in Johannesburg, South Africa, investigating a bizarre rumour—that vulture brains are being smoked by locals who want to win the Lotto.

Apparently vultures’ acute vision, which can spot a carcass from four miles away, has kindled a belief that they possess clairvoyant powers.

And there on a shelf in the outdoor market, sandwiched between a severed baboon’s hand and an aardvark’s head, is the proof—a small vial containing a waxy yellow lump of vulture brain.

The stall owner tells me that since the World Cup in 2010, vulture brains have been his biggest seller. "We make the brain dry and mix it with mud and you smoke it like a cigarette or a stick. Then the vision comes."

Vulture conservationist Walter Nesser tells me how the birds are shot, trapped, or poisoned by hunters. One tactic is to poison a cow so the vultures that feed on the carcass themselves fall victim. "You can have 300 or 400 converge on a poisoned carcass and all be wiped out." Brains and other body parts are then sold at street markets or shops in Johannesburg and other cities.

As a result, seven of the nine species of vulture in South Africa are now endangered, and within 20 to 30 years the birds could be hunted to extinction.

Walter and his partner Kerri Wolter and vulture Samaritans are striving to save one of nature’s most underappreciated and unloved animals. They invite me to visit their vulture rescue centre in the Magaliesberg mountains, the world’s oldest mountain range.

Vultures may be somewhat challenged in the looks department. And have some socially awkward habits that include defecating on their own feet to keep cool. But they are incredibly well adapted to their extreme lifestyle. Their bald head is specially designed to stay clean even when rooting around in rotting flesh. And their digestive system contains special acids that will dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria. “You could wash your hands in their poop—it’s such a good disinfectant,” Kerri assures me. I decide to take her word for it.

They are also the world’s highest-flying bird. In 1973, a Rueppells griffon vulture collided with a plane flying at 37,000 feet. They reach such dizzy heights by catching thermals, and Walter has discovered a way to join them: paragliding.

Strapped to Walter’s front, I take a leap of faith and run off the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. As we wind our way up to 10,000 feet, one by one, about 20 vultures join us. This is the way to admire their true beauty; they are master gliders, barely moving their wings as they swoop around us.

It’s a magical experience and I could swear the vultures are making eye contact with me as they duck and dive, as though showing off their skills. “They recognise me and like to come out and play,” says Walter, revealing a surprisingly fun-loving side to this reviled creature.

The vulture’s extraordinary looks and activities have resulted in an undeservedly bad reputation. But by cleaning up dead bodies, they perform an essential role in the ecosystem. One I do not wish to live without. If only the South African government could have predicted that introducing the Lotto would have led to a dramatic increase in the death of these animals. But then, nothing can help you see the future. Least of all, smoking vulture brains. 

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