Wildlife Conservation, Traditional Medicine Collide in Eswatini

Manzini, Eswatini — Traditional medicine, or “muti,” is an important part of Eswatini’s culture. However, an increasing demand for muti has placed some of the southern African kingdom’s animal species at risk of extinction. That’s something conservationists and molecular biologists want to change.

Molecular biologist Zamekile Bhembe, who works for the USAID-funded EWild Laboratory at the University of Eswatini, is fighting poachers and trying to get them convicted for their crimes.

She said poaching for traditional medicinal purposes is a leading cause of biodiversity decline, and she wants stronger regulations to protect wildlife.

“Every time you see biodiversity declines, there will be some sort of poaching involved,” she said. “As a country, we cannot deny that we are using these resources as our traditional medicine. It’s just that we need a way of regulating.”

For generations, the people of Eswatini have held traditional beliefs and values close to their hearts. This is reflected in the fact that more than 80% of the population still consults traditional healers, or “witchdoctors,” for advice and healing.

These healers use a wide range of plant and animal species to create traditional medicine, drawing on knowledge passed down through generations. However, excessive hunting has endangered the local populations of pangolins, crocodiles, vultures and owls, leading to calls for more sustainable practices.

Makhanya Makhanya, president of the Witchdoctors Association, is a widely renowned traditional healing practitioner in his own right. He said the role of traditional healers needs to be protected.

Such healers, he said, have served Eswatini for generations, providing healing and support to those in need. But he said current laws do not reflect the reality of their work. He wants to see regulations that recognize the traditional healers’ role in society and allow them to continue their work.

Patrick Maduna, a South African citizen, said he travels from neighboring South Africa to Eswatini to seek traditional medicinal solutions. His preference for traditional healing shows the complex relationship between modern and traditional medicine in Eswatini.

“I came all the way from South Africa to Swaziland for traditional attention,” he said. “I have been using the same traditional doctor since 2006, I have been coming to the same place. For me to come and get traditional attention, for me, it’s like therapy. I have never, ever gone to the hospital.”

Maduna said if there were laws in Eswatini to limit the poaching of animals for traditional medicine, he believes the so-called witchdoctors would comply with the rules.

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