Conservationists have sounded an alarm that vulture and owl populations are suffering an 80% fall in South Africa partly because dubious faith groups, along with organized crime, are hunting down the birds for bogus but lucrative rituals.
The devastation came to the fore recently when police in South Africa arrested and charged a pastor and congregants for capturing and livestreaming the torture of an ‘evil’ owl. Claiming the bird was an “evil spirit,” the pastor covered the bird with “anointing oil.”
“The dastardly act was borne out of the Africanist faith belief and Africanist churches’ suspicions that owls represent witches; their feathers carry witches’ messages; and their eyes are the hooks witches use to harvest human prey. It’s backward to torture owls out of such silly beliefs,” said Lindani Mkhize, a spokesperson for South Africa police in the capital Pretoria.
In South Africa, vulture populations are vanishing too because dubious traditional spiritualists and churches hunt and kill them to use their body parts as bogus cures and exorcism tools. There’s a lucrative underworld trade where traditional faith leaders and spiritualists pay pricey sums to the underworld harvesters of owl and vulture and leopard parts.
“It’s an evil, abusive practice that ties churches and African herbalists in South Africa.”
“It’s an evil, abusive practice that ties churches and African herbalists in South Africa,” said Bright Zanga, a Zion Christian Church priest who volunteers with the United Nations Environment Program to raise awareness among congregants of animal rights issues. “Whilst some local church faith groups kill owls for their supposed association with witchcraft, herbalists actively hunt vultures to create bogus oil, bones concoctions for sale to superstitious businesspeople and sick clients.”
South Africa, experts warn, still has one of the world’s most precious bird populations, but some vital bird species are vanishing. “Forest-dwelling bird species are disappearing from some of South Africa’s indigenous forests, with forest birds in the Eastern Cape being the most affected,” researchers warned in 2017, citing a study in Bird Conservation International that showed 28 of South Africa’s 57 forest-dwelling bird species are declining.
“It’s not only birds that are used for faith rituals,” Zanga the cleric added. “Leopards are prized by some Africanist churches in South Africa like the big Shembe church which prioritizes skinning leopard skin to use for church decoration and nobility.”
Shembe is one of the largest Africanist congregations in South Africa and has been accused of slaughtering hundreds of wild leopards.
Police in South Africa are rising to the task now, creating special divisions to crack down on organized crime, dubious pastors and traditional herbalists/spiritualists who torture and kill bird species for the lucrative trade in bird body parts.
“We are on their trail,” said Mkhize, the police spokesperson. “Our operations don’t care if it’s a deacon, bishop, prophet caught abusing owls, leopards, vultures for healing or baptism purposes. We will arrest and prosecute.”
Animal abuse in the name of church or herbalist rituals such as exorcisms or anointings will feed into organized crime in South Africa if it’s not tackled early from within the pulpit, according to Zanga, the church leader. “South Africa is a major staging post for live birds, sea life and wildlife animals and their remains going as far as China, Europe or the Americas. It’s shameful for the church to be caught up too in that circus.”