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South African gamblers smoke endangered vulture brains for luck

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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bearded vultureAs the World Cup launches in South Africa this week, conservationists fear that gamblers looking for a little extra luck will turn to a source those of us in the West might not expect: the practice of smoking vulture brains.

The custom stems from the traditional medicine known in South Africa as muti. The vulture brains are dried, ground up and then smoked in cigarettes which supposedly give the users visions of the future. In addition to dreams of winning lotto numbers or sports teams, practitioners say the practice can give users an edge on taking tests or help their business attract more clients. A tiny vial of vulture brains sells for around $6.50, according to an article from AFP.

Seven of the nine vulture species found in South Africa are endangered in that country, including the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and the cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres), the latter of which, according to the Cape Vulture Conservation Project, has only about 380 breeding pairs left in the country. (Both species have stronger populations in some other countries.) Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem, helping to control disease and vermin by eating carrion. (Read our previous coverage of vultures in India, where 99.9 percent of the eco-essential scavengers have died off in the last two decades.)

Mark Anderson, executive director of BirdLife South Africa, said in a prepared release that South African vultures are declining due to lack of food, poisoning by poachers, and collisions with electricity power lines. “The harvesting of the bird’s heads by followers of muti magic is an additional threat these birds can’t endure,” he said. Wildlife groups estimate that at least 300 vultures are killed annually for muti, an unsustainable number that could drive vultures into extinction in the country in the next decade.

Photo: Bearded vulture, via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. robert schmidt 9:32 pm 06/10/2010

    It always ceases to amaze me how rich and varied human stupidity is.

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  2. 2. hawkeye 11:54 pm 06/10/2010

    I believe you meant "it NEVER ceases to amaze me"…….The more I see, the more reason I find to believe the concept of human beings as disease organisms infecting the planet. Unfortunately for us, as the disease gets worse, the planet’s immune system is more likely to kick into action……..

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 6:59 am 06/11/2010

    You’d think they would realize that doesn’t work, if it did, they wouldn’t be a third-world country. If it does work…has anyone checked President Obama’s cigarettes?

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  4. 4. Soccerdad 9:25 am 06/11/2010

    If I were unluckey enough to be born South African, I might give anything a try to turn my luck around.

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  5. 5. Fleur 12:24 pm 06/11/2010

    I agree 100%
    What is even more sad is how such stupidity is still perpetuated!
    I mean we, as humans, have brains, if our ancestors were wromg that does not mean that we have to follow their path!

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  6. 6. robert schmidt 8:45 pm 06/11/2010

    @hawkeye, actually I meant what I said. I’ve read enough comments here and heard enough stats on the knowledge base of the average American to have lost complete faith in humanity. No matter how idiotic something appears to be, no matter how deep the new low of human intelligence, someone will top it within a week or so. If we are truly the most intelligent species, then it is a gift the vast majority of us have squandered.

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  7. 7. hawkeye 1:39 am 06/12/2010

    I stand Corrected:) You may already be familiar with it, but if not, you might enjoy reading Voltaire’s novel "Candide". As it demonstrates, some things never change.

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  8. 8. Dolmance 12:43 pm 06/13/2010

    Nothing goes better after swallowing down a baby for the purpose of warding off AIDS than a good smoke.

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  9. 9. dbtinc 12:19 pm 06/14/2010

    that’s mankind for you! It’s not just stupidity in Africa – look to Asia where gorilla paws and the like are hot items.

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  10. 10. dbtinc 12:20 pm 06/14/2010

    Hey Fleur – guess that also puts the kibosh on religion as well!

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  11. 11. chubbee 7:29 pm 06/14/2010

    See? This is what happens when you make marijuana illegal.

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  12. 12. cspetro 10:37 am 06/15/2010

    Not that I condone the actions in the preceding article, but at what point do we start labeling someone’s culture and beliefs as "stupidity"? Personally, I don’t believe in some powerful being who controls the world (God or what ever you want to call him/her), but if I called that stupidity holding back the world would it be so accepted in the states? While again, although I do not condone the actions in the preceding article I believe that calling someone’s cultural beliefs stupid reveals a lack of empathy.

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  13. 13. hawkeye 9:31 pm 06/15/2010

    I don’t think believing that smoking vulture brains will make one lucky or smart qualifies as "culture". "Superstition" or "ignorance" is a more accurate description.

    By your logic, our disapproval of burning witches and heretics at the stake in medieval Europe, and fighting a civil war to abolish slavery in 19th century America reveals a lack of empathy for the people who engaged in those practices.

    But I think you do make one valid point. The word "stupid" was not a good choice, for the reasons you point out. In the case of beliefs and practices which harm others (human and otherwise), more appropriate terms would be "selfish", "malevolent" or "criminal".

    As long as no harm to others results, a given practice can be respected as a "cultural practice", no matter how bizarre it may seem to others. But just as your rights end where they begin to interfere with the rights of your neighbor, no society has a right to "cultural norms" that harm others.

    viz. Japan and whaling, Nazis and Jews, Whahabis and women, KKK and blacks, cannibals and missionaries (or is that more a matter of "bad taste"…………..?)

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  14. 14. shazz 4:16 am 06/17/2010

    I’m a South African and this is the first time I’ve heard about this custom. Checked with colleagues from various backgrounds and still not aware of it. Cannot deny that traditional healers and muti are still regularly supported by many South Africans, the article implies that smoking vulture brains is a common practice. It is not.

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  15. 15. Otispunkmeyer 2:09 am 06/25/2010

    Ok, so this pertains particularly to the northeastern most provinces in SA. I lived in the Limpopo Province for 3 months and my advisor talked about this and other similar practices often. It is sad to say the least. These provinces are so poor that they will resort to anything to try and get ahead. The Limpopo is 98% black and 2% white with whites owning almost all the businesses and land. We drove nearly every week by a "witch and wizard village" where the government has relocated people who have been threatened with death for supposedly being witches/wizards…I don’t want to stereotype this area however, it is not by any means all like this, but impoverished circumstances drive them to extreme beliefs and means.

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