Need a monkey paw? I know the place to go.

Durban boasts South Africa’s largest muthi market and I wanted to see if it was brimming with as many monkey paws, snake skins, baboon skulls and owl carcasses as I’d heard. The demand for muthi is increasing, which is a menace to many threatened plant and animal species, but the end of the muthi trade would also be devastating for economic and cultural reasons. I’d not appreciated that before I began my research.

Two muthi traders sit under a hyena skin. How obvious is it that the brother was much less keen on being interviewed than the sister?

Muthi

Muthi is traditional medicine. Herbalists, known as inyangas, rely mainly on the medicinal properties of roots, seeds, bark and other plant parts in concocting cures for various ailments. In fact, the term muthi comes from the Zulu word for tree, although muthi is not only plant based.

Sangomas are another type of traditional healer and are concerned with the psychic world, such as dealing with spirits. I asked one of the muthi traders why he had so many dead owls on his stall, and he explained “owls are evil creatures, if you want to curse someone a sangoma can use an owl”.

Widespread use

Findings in a recent report by Futureworks show that, each year, the South African traditional medicine trade is worth around R2.9 billion (£190 million or US$297 million), employs at least 133,000 people and has roughly 27 million consumers.  Those consumers get through a staggering 128 million courses of traditional medicine. The muthi trade is therefore important economically, culturally and for health reasons.

Muthi and plants

About 20,000 tonnes of indigenous plants are used annually but, significantly, no more than 50 tonnes are cultivated. Harvesting plant parts leads to killing over three quarters of the plants used. Increasing demand for muthi is causing the local extinction of popular plant species. It's not surprising that Futureworks conclude the use of plant material in muthi is unsustainable.

An additional concern is that most of the people involved with gathering plants for muthi are rural women with few alternative sources of income. Plant extinction therefore threatens their livelihoods as well as the plants themselves. 

A muthi trader selling plant parts

It might be possible to cultivate some plant species but that would change the structure of what’s currently an informal trade. Large scale cultivation would be run by corporates and therefore unlikely to benefit many of the existing harvesters. Cultivation would also require land, meaning the conversion of existing land uses which would be likely to place additional pressures on the few remaining natural uncultivated areas.

Muthi and animals

Some stall holders were wary of my questions seeking to identify animal parts, which is not entirely surprising given how many skins, heads and limbs of vulnerable and protected species festered around the place. I’m fairly certain of my identification of spotted hyena, leopard, elephant, wildebeest, giraffe, white backed vulture, cape cormorant, blue crane, monitor lizards, the first honey badger I’d ever seen, the second honey badger I'd ever seen (on a neighbouring stall) and at least twenty African rock pythons. On my first trip to the market a trader from Mozambique arrived, opened a sack and tipped out a deluge of dead birds including owls, ibis and a snake eagle. The muthi market is a fascinating, macabre and depressing game walk.

Spot the threatened species

Vultures are particularly significant to and threatened by the trade. Sangomas believe that vultures’ superb eyesight is proof of clairvoyant powers. As a result vulture body parts are considered useful in predicting lottery numbers and other future events. One KZN Wildlife study estimated that 160 vultures are sold for muthi each year, that the majority of traditional healers believe they are becoming harder to source and that white-backed vultures in Zululand will become extinct in the next quarter of a century due to the muthi trade and other human impacts. You can see the head of a White-backed vulture on the table in the picture on the right (start by finding the leopard face, then go right to the silver and black honey badger fur, go down and look to the left of the baboon skull). 

South Africa’s cultural sensitivities 

South Africa is deeply politically correct. We have collective disgust at the Vietnamese cultural belief that rhino horn can cure rheumatism but it’s obviously taboo to criticise or act on a South African cultural practice of using vulture parts to help win the lottery, to use one example use of a threatened species.  

Protected species are clearly displayed all around the market and I’m told the police raid only 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 which are supported by a large section of the public. Can you imagine if we ignored rhino poaching through fear of offending Vietnamese cultural sensitivities? 

A muthi market street scene (and the second honey badger sighting of the day)

Impact of population and consumption growth - the other taboo

There are now over twice as many South Africans as there were in 1970. Population and consumption growth has not only driven the demand for muthi (and practically everything else we consume) but also led to the reduction in land available for almost all other species.

Decades ago, taking a few vultures and plant parts had minimal, if any, long term impacts. Today driving out of Durban gives a vista of suburbs followed by miles of sugarcane or pine plantation mono-cultures. Our land use changes are so extensive that there’s too many of us and too much human consumption for the muthi trade to be sustainable.

What makes the muthi trade so interesting to me is that I was expecting to be disturbed by its impact on threatened species. I was, but I hadn’t appreciated that the increased demand also threatened aspects of the trade itself and that, in turn, important employment opportunities, healthcare options and cultural traditions are also at risk. These economic, cultural and healthcare benefits are also worthy of protection. The problem is that the current demand fuelled by our much higher population and consumption levels means we can’t simultaneously save all species and all economic, cultural and healthcare interests.