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Wildlife in Traditional Medicine

Wildlife in Traditional Medicine

  • Lola Lopez • Program Director of Luwire Natural Reserve

One of the particularities of being African relies on the fact that a vast majority of us believe in the enigmatic efficiency of traditional medicine and have at some point in our lives purchased traditional medicine or consulted a traditional healer. The very low ratio of western doctors to patients particularly in rural areas, leaves little opportunity for consultation with trained medical doctors. On the other hand, traditional healers are far more accessible to most of the population.

An article by WHO from 2013, on the occasion of the International Day of Traditional medicine, claimed that traditional medicine plays a significant role in Mozambique, where approximately three out of four Mozambicans seek traditional medicine before institutionalised care when facing a health problem. The same report indicated that at the time, the city of Lichinga alone hosted 32 doctors and over 2000 traditional practitioners. 

Traditional healers are consulted for a wide range of medical conditions including sexually transmitted diseases, mental health issues, blood pressure/heart problems, HIV/AIDS, infertility, epilepsy, diabetes, and cancer. Traditional healing practices place an equal or greater value on curing supernatural disorders such as curses from evil spirits and demons, spirit illnesses, bad luck, attracting wealth and casting love spells.

The majority of traditional remedies are of botanical origin, while the use of animal parts is often treated as a taboo and is poorly documented. However, it is widely known that wildlife used as traditional medicine comprises a vast range of species. Apart from the use of lion and leopard skins for cultural and traditional purposes, the use of bones, horns, fat and oils, claws and nails, elephants, rhinos, several vulture species, hyena, porcupine, and several reptiles for medicinal purposes is significant.

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While skins and parts from lions and leopards confer strength to the bearer, other animal parts are used to provide protection against enemies, charms in justice cases, intelligence in school children, prosperity and good fortune, to strengthen a relationship, or even to help an individual committing a crime. In fact, it is widely common to find magic potions and amulets among the belongings of poachers captured.

The use of wildlife species in traditional medicine has raised concerns regarding its potential impact on wildlife populations particularly on endangered species. Although some aspects of these practices may be carried out sustainably, the use of some species has led to targeted harvesting of fauna, which can jeopardize long-term wildlife population of threatened species. Such events can have negative effects for sustainability, biodiversity and habitat protection. These results are further impacted by the rapid increase and widespread growth in wildlife trade to other geographic regions, mainly Asia. We are very often triggered to point our fingers at Asian markets which dominate a great deal of the illegal wildlife trade circuits worldwide. There is no question of the devastating effects of the continued growing demand from that part of the world. But it’s just as important to take individual responsibility for the domestic wildlife product consumption for traditional purposes. Perhaps it is time to break the taboos and speak openly about how rooted culture and traditional practices can help protect wildlife.  

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