One of the key reasons that vultures are declining in southern Africa is their use in the muthi trade. This is a form of traditional medicine that involves the use of animal and plant materials. Vultures are valued in the muthi trade as it is believed that eating, drinking or smoking their brains gives Sangomas (witchdoctors) and others, powers to see into the future. A growing South African middle class has increased demand for vulture parts, as more people want to use superstitious clairvoyant powers to make predictions on everything from their children’s exam results to betting on football matches; indeed there is anecdotal evidence that during the South African World Cup in 2010 there was a spike in vulture deaths across southern and eastern Africa due to people trying to make money predicting the results. Supplying the South African muthi trade with vulture brains has resulted in the catastrophic decline of cape, white-backed, hooded and lappet-faced vultures across the whole of southern Africa. Poisoning is the number one method of killing vultures. Livestock carcasses laced with pesticide, usually carbofuran, is a simple, discreet and highly effective way of killing large numbers of vultures.
A lappet-faced vulture body draped over the skin of a pangolin – the most trafficked animal in the world. Faraday Muthi Market, Johannesburg, South Africa
I wanted to photograph vultures being used in the muthi trade for the National Geographic magazine story I was shooting on vultures.; so I headed to South Africa. I met up with friend and assistant Alex Braczkowski. Alex is a surf dude at heart but obsessed with African wildlife; particularly leopards. He’d been helping Steve Winter shoot a story on leopards for NGM and had come to me off the back of that story. Alex had done some poking about at markets in South Africa with his friend and local Jo’burg guide Jabu prior to my arrival but hadn’t found very much. However he had seen vulture heads at Faraday Market in Johannesburg, so that’s where we headed.
Faraday Market, Johannesburg, South Africa – October 2014
I grew up with stories of how terrible Jo’burg was full of murder, car jacking and robbery. Of course it’s no worse than many big cities; it has the usual problems, drugs, guns, violence, bad musical theatre. I must admit though I feel a little uneasy as we step out of the car in the dark grotty under-hang of Faraday Market in downtown Jo’burg. I’ll be honest, it’s not a great place to shop and relax. Immediately we see vultures; the corpses of three white-backed vultures splayed open on the pavement at the first stall we come to. Piled high behind the vultures are the dried and rotting bodies of a honey badger, black mambas, ostrich, unidentified birds, warthogs and many more. Behind them hangs the skin of a leopard. It’s a disturbing apothecary and it’s completely on display; no attempt to hide its illegality.
So the idea of the shoot is to look like goofy tourists. We have shorts, t-shirts and flip flops and we chat and laugh at the ‘stupid’ dead animals, which feels disingenuous to both the animals and the people we are talking to but we’re undercover. I choose to shoot the images on a tiny happy snappy camera called a Sony RX100 mkIII. This little camera is incredible. It sports a 1 inch 20 megapixel sensor, which gives awesome results. At the time of buying it, it was generally regarded as the best small camera ever made. I still have it, except my wife has stolen it from me and she keeps it in her hand bag and bites me and growls at me if I go near it.
I have this tiny camera so I don’t look serious and I have it set to shoot manual focus with a focus assist – the image peaks red when it’s sharp (supposedly!). We tell the market traders we are shooting pictures for my holiday blog thingy and interested in even perhaps buying a dead vulture. In turn they hold up the corpses for me so that I can shoot pictures of them. Alex does a lot of talking while I focus and compose and shoot, trying to get as many images as I can in the few short minutes we have; we don’t want the guys to get suspicious. I’m keen to try and get compositions with the vulture in the foreground being held by the market trader with the leopard skin as the backdrop; which is sort of working until the wind whips up and spins the leopard skin round ruining the shot. I could go and spin it back round but it would look suspicious. The market traders are enjoying themselves holding up the dead vultures for us but we don’t want to push it. We get a few frames and move on. We wander the market and find piles of other animals including bits of lion and elephant. The number of smaller animals is unbelievable; particularly snakes and birds of prey. We find the body of a lappet-faced vulture slumped over a pangolin skin on top of a wheelie bin. It‘s a wretched sight. Pangolins are beautiful slow moving gentle creatures – they look like an anteater covered in artichokes. They are now considered to be the most trafficked animal in the world. A trader lifts the lappet-faced vulture up and proudly displays it to me while I take a few shots; then as before, Alex engages him in conversation while I subtly carry on working. The vulture looks like a child’s corpse being held aloft, its body reduced to bone and sinew. I shoot wide to get the vulture, the market and the pangolin in. The pangolin skin sits atop the bin with the small logo ‘PIKI TUP’ written on it. Details like this I believe are hugely important to layering an image. The final image is disturbing but interesting. There’s lots going on in it – I want the reader to get a sense of place as much as an understanding of the vulture’s story.
Faraday Muthi Market, Johannesburg, South Africa
At the back of the market we find a string of vulture heads, around six cape vultures all on a single string. The market trader who owns them is nervous and slightly aggressive and he won’t let me shoot pictures. I’m pissed off with myself because I should never have let him see my camera before I’d taken a few. I’d rather get the shot and have him kick off than walk away with nothing.
We leave when we’ve shot all the vultures we can find and head back to a youth hostel where we’ve left our kit. The first thing I do is download the pictures and look at them. They aren’t great. Many are out of focus; turns out the red peaking on the Sony is a pile of crap and tells you things are sharp when they quite simply are not. There are one or two images that we could ‘get away’ with but you don’t tend to ‘get away’ with things at National Geographic, you do them properly. We drink a beer and eat a pizza and pluck up the courage to go back.
Faraday Muthi Market, Johannesburg, South Africa
We spend the car journey working out what the hell we’re going to say to the market traders. Why are two weird tourists with a vulture obsession about to turn up and take even more photos? We arrive back in the market early afternoon and jokingly explain how I was stupid and had shot all the pictures without a card in the camera – ha what a twat! It’s all fun and jovial. I say to Alex, ‘you keep them talking and I’ll shoot the hell out this, just tell me when they start to kick off and we’ll pull it’. And that’s exactly what we do. Alex laughs and chats and I just kept shooting; this time with a camera set to one shot autofocus (set on the centre spot) this way I can get pin sharp where I need sharpness then move the camera to compose before fully pressing the button, it’s a system I use a lot. After a few minutes of guys all holding vultures and messing about, the suspicious trader with the vulture heads on the string appears. He chats to the other guys and then everyone starts getting nervous and suspicious. I’m oblivious to everything until Alex suddenly shouts firmly ‘Charlie we have to leave now!’ I pop out of my bubble and see things are starting to kick off. We thank them all politely and jump in the car and speed off.
A few weeks later Alex and I end up in Durban on a lay over. We decide to get up early and try the muthi market at Warwick Triangle. It’s larger than the Jo’burg market and more open, which means taking pictures is easier; although it‘s a pretty overcast day so I’m having to shoot the Sony at 1600 ISO. The first thing we find is a string of malachite kingfishers, like a child’s mobile strung across the ceiling of one of the stalls. Next to it hangs a rotting baboons head with brown hooded kingfishers dangling around it. Being a kingfisher obsessive since my childhood I find this the most disturbing thing I have seen in the markets. I shoot a few images and laugh at the stupid birds to the market traders, keeping up the idea that I am a tourist. Eventually we meet a guy with a couple of cape vulture heads. He gets very involved showing us the heads and shows us how he splits them to get the brains out.
I shoot around a hundred pictures in the muthi markets but it’s the image of the market trader in Durban with his vulture heads that works best. As an image it is colourful and dynamic; it is also gross and disturbing. The Market Trader’s wife is eyeing me suspiciously in the background – she has just taken the most perfect bite of her sandwich, a detail which, like the PIKI TUP logo on the bin adds to the depth of the photo and in my opinion much improves it.
Durban Muthi Market
These links are for tourist information on the muthi markets. They seem to think that illegally harvesting endangered species is a great thing to go and see if you’re a tourist!