Traditional Medicinal Use of Animals in South Africa: A Threat to Conservation and Consumers

This piece was written for Lewis & Clark’s Emerging Topics in Animal Law course. All views expressed are those of the author.


By Nicola van Wyk



South Africa’s indigenous cultures have a long history of using plants, animals, and animal-based materials in traditional medicine for the treatment of ailments and for symbolic reasons, such as gaining wealth and influencing relationships.[1] This use of animals for traditional medicinal purposes is rapidly expanding, despite concerns about the impact of the trade on biodiversity.[2]

This paper seeks to: quantify wildlife use for traditional medicinal purposes at the Faraday Market, South Africa’s largest informal traditional medicine market; assess whether trade in species that are of conservation concern exist; identify the harms that the trade poses to consumers; and broadly set out the legal framework that exists to protects consumers and curtail the overexploitation of animals.

Traditional Medicine in South Africa

60–80% of South Africans will consult a traditional healer during their lifetime. Traditional healers outnumber western health practitioners by approximately 2000:1, particularly in rural areas.[3] Individuals living in rural areas thus have easy access to traditional healers, and little opportunity to consult with university trained health practitioners.[4]

Traditional medicine is used to either treat medical ailments (white medicine) or to manage ancestral conflict (black medicine). Healers consider health and welfare problems to be closely connected to supernatural forces and one’s relationships with ancestors and other people. It is believed that plants and animal parts have supernatural properties that can address such problems. For instance, the skin and other parts from lions, leopards, and cheetahs are believed to bestow strength on the possessor thereof. Other animal parts are believed to promote protection against enemies, good luck, intelligence, prosperity, strong relationships, or even to assist someone in committing a crime.[5]

Animal parts are being harvested from at least 232 vertebrate species (excluding marine species), for traditional medicinal purposes, in South Africa.[6] The most commonly sold products are animals’ skin, oil, fat, and bones.[7] Nile crocodile, vervet monkey, warthog, African elephant, ostrich, owl, leopard, chacma baboon, Cape porcupine, monitor lizard, puff adder, African rock python, and black-backed jackal are some of the species most widely utilized in the traditional medicinal trade.[8]

Faraday Market

Faraday, which is located in Johannesburg, is the largest informal traditional medicine market in South Africa.[9] Here, one can acquire most of the wildlife species that have been documented in traditional medicine markets throughout South Africa. A study published in 2011 shows that the diverse range of species traded at Faraday included 147 vertebrate species, excluding domestic species. Species diversity was highest for mammals and birds, with reptile species (particularly snakes and lizards) being the 3rd most diverse category of vertebrae available at the market. Carnivores were the mammals most commonly traded, of which cats (wildlife) were the most popular. Antelopes and buffalo were the second most prevalent group of mammals. Parts of marine fishes, invertebrate species, and domestic animals were also available to purchase, including goat, cattle, sheep, horse, donkey, pig, and cat. 17 of the species sold at Faraday were of conservation concern, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCNs) criteria, and 62.5% of traders were selling species that have been listed on the IUCNs Red List Categories and Criteria version 3.1 (2001).[10]

A few years later, in 2016, it was reported that reptiles and mammals were the most frequently used species in traditional medicine at Faraday. Species found in trade at Faraday included ‘crocodiles, lizards generally, chameleons, striped polecats, elephants and jackals.’[11] A mere 36% of use was allocated to medicinal purposes (e.g. headaches, skin issues, and swollen limbs), with a majority of uses being non-medicinal, such as: to increase mental and physical strength; to act as love charms; to repel bad luck or bad spirits; or to increase good luck.[12]

Species of Conservation Concern

Various critically endangered (CR), endangered (EN), vulnerable (VU), near threatened (NT), and vulnerable (VU) vertebrate species (listed on the IUCN Red List)[13] are being traded for traditional medicinal purposes in South Africa, including:[14]


  • Southern ground-hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) VU
  • White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) CR


  • African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) NT
  • African savanna elephant (Loxodonta Africana) EN
  • African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) EN
  • Brown hyaena (Parahyaena brunnea) NT
  • Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) VU
  • Hippopotamus (hippopotamus amphibius) VU
  • Leopard (Panthera pardus) VU
  • Lion (Panthera leo) VU


  • Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) CR
  • Sungazer lizard (Cordylus giganteus) VU

Harm to Consumers

Increasing demand for animal parts encourages traders to include various potentially harmful adulterants in medicines, or to mislead consumers as to what they are actually buying. For instance, during a survey conducted at a traditional medicine market in Mozambique, traders claimed to be selling bottled python-, crocodile-, and mamba fat. One trader pointed out various bottles of fat as coming from different vertebrates. However, he was unable to match the same species to the same bottles when asked to repeat himself at a later stage. It is thus likely that some products are fake, and that traders are unable to verify the species being traded.[15]

Animal-based traditional medicines are often made from animal tissues and organs that are processed into various forms such as slices, powders, or tablets. This makes it difficult to identity the species being traded.[16] Conventional methods used to identify species are onerous, time-consuming, expertise-dependent, and costly. DNA barcoding is an accurate and efficient method to identify authentic species and their adulterants, in order to ascertain whether traded species are threatened and/or legally protected, and to protect consumers from harmful adulterants.[17] It is thus important that a comprehensive identification and authentication system, including DNA barcoding and other methods, be established, to ensure quality assessment and trade monitoring of traditional medicines.

The conditions at traditional medicinal markets are furthermore often unsanitary and crowded, with a wide variety of live animals and animal parts being kept and sold. This high-density environment is a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases, and exposes humans to the spread of such diseases.

International Trade

Cross-border trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine exists between South Africa and other countries that are also party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). For instance, the trade between Mozambique and South Africa, which likely includes trade in, among other species, Nile crocodile (crocodylus niloticus) specimens,[18] which is listed under Appendix II of CITES. An Appendix II listing allows trade, subject to various strict conditions that have to be met by the exporting and importing countries, in order to ensure legality and ecological sustainability. However, it is likely that a significant percentage of specimens traded internationally for traditional medicinal purposes do not comply with the conditions specified by CITES. Other specimens traded cross-border could be listed under Appendix I of CITES, which prohibits international trade entirely, or, in exceptional circumstances, prescribes strict maximum quotas for trade. Cross-border trade is thus likely having a significant impact on the conservation of listed species, and further investigation should be conducted to identify and quantify the species traded for traditional medicinal purposes between South Africa and its neighbouring countries.

South Africa’s Legal Framework

In addition to CITES, there are numerous domestic laws that may apply to the trade in live animals and animal parts for traditional medicinal purposes, such as the Constitution,[19] and legislation pertaining to: consumer protection;[20] animal welfare;[21] the environment;[22] and food safety.[23] These laws are briefly outlined below, in alphabetical order.

Animal Diseases Act 35 of 1984 and Animal Health Act 7 of 2002

The purpose of the Animal Diseases Act and the Animal Health Act is to provide for the control of animal diseases and parasites, and promote animal health.[24] The Animal Health Act also regulates the importation and exportation of animals.[25] The Animal Diseases Act has been repealed by the Animal Health Act. However, the commencement of the Animal Health Act has not yet been proclaimed in the Government Gazette. The Animal Diseases Act is thus still in effect. It is imperative that the provisions of the Animals Diseases Act or the Animal Health Act be enforced, in order to minimize the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading from traditional medicinal markets.

Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962

The Animals Protection Act (APA) is South Africa’s primary legislation aiming to prevent cruelty to animals. The APA does not apply to wildlife that is not in captivity. However, the Act does apply to domestic animals used for traditional medicinal purposes, such as “any equine, bovine, sheep, goat, pig, fowl, ostrich, dog, cat or other domestic animal or bird,”[26] as well as “any wild animal, wild bird or reptile which is in captivity or under the control of any person.”[27] It is crucial that the APA be enforced to ensure that animals traded for traditional medicinal purposes are not exposed to inhumane treatment.

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Section 24 of the Constitution states that:

“Everyone has the right—

(a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and

(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that—

(i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation;

(ii) promote conservation; and

(iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”[28]

The illegal trade in marine and wildlife species for traditional medicinal purposes infringes on South Africans’ constitutional right to a healthy environment, in that it poses a serious risk to the conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity and contributes significantly to ecological degradation within the country.

Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008

Among other goals, the Consumer Protection Act aims to:

  • Promote a fair, accessible and sustainable marketplace for consumer products and establish national norms and standards pertaining to consumer protection;
  • Provide for improved standards of consumer information;
  • Prohibit specific unfair marketing and business practices; and
  • Promote responsible consumer behaviour.[29]

It is important that the provisions of the Consumer protection Act be enforced, in order to protect consumers of traditional medicines against potentially harmful adulterants that traders might add to medicines, as well as to ensure that consumers are not misled as to the authenticity of the products that they are buying.

Meat Safety Act 40 of 2000

The Meat Safety Act:

  • Provides for measures to promote meat safety and the safety of animal products;
  • Establishes national standards pertaining to slaughterhouses; and
  • Regulates the importation and exportation of meat and animal parts.[30]

It is imperative that the provisions of the Meat Safety Act be enforced, in order to ensure that the acquisition, slaughter, and processing of animals used in traditional medicines do not expose humans to unsafe meat and other animal products that might pose a health risk.

National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998

The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) establishes: principles for decision-making on matters pertaining to the environment, including wildlife; institutions to promote co-operative governance; and procedures for how organs of state are to co-ordinate their respective environmental functions; with an aim to create co-operative, environmental governance.[31]

National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004

Some of the aims of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) are to:

  • Provide for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity as set out by NEMA;
  • Protect species and ecosystems that require protection; and
  • Promote sustainable use of indigenous biological resources.[32]

The trade in certain animals and animal parts for traditional medicinal purposes poses serious risks to South Africa’s biodiversity, and places additional pressure on species that are already in decline. Enforcement of NEMBA is key to: protecting the country’s biodiversity; protecting species that are of conservation concern; and ensuring that the use of indigenous resources is sustainable.

Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, 2007

The Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, 2007 (TOPS) aims to:

  • Regulate the permit system, provided for in NEMBA, for restricted activities involving specimens of listed threatened or protected species;
  • Provide for the registration of captive breeding operations, commercial exhibition facilities, game farms, nurseries, scientific institutions, sanctuaries and rehabilitation facilities and wildlife traders;
  • Provide for the regulation of hunting, which is a restricted activity;
  • Prohibit certain restricted activities involving specific listed threatened or protected species; and
  • Protect wild populations of listed threatened species.[33]

Seeing as many of the species utilized in traditional medicine are listed as threatened or protected, traders (and hunters) must comply with the provisions of TOPS, register their activities, and apply for permits, where necessary.


The use of rare and endangered species for traditional medicine has led to the targeted harvesting and exploitation of certain species, and notably impacts the long-term survival of populations that are already in decline.[34] Further investigation should thus be conducted to identify and quantify the species traded for traditional medicinal purposes within South Africa and between South Africa and its neighbouring countries. In aid of this, a comprehensive identification and authentication system should be established, to ensure quality assessment, trade monitoring, and enforcement of applicable statutes. Not only would this enable enforcement authorities to effectively identify otherwise unidentifiable specimens of threatened species, but it would also decrease the likelihood of consumers being misled as to the products that they are purchasing.

The continuing trade in animal-based traditional medicines furthermore places consumers at risk of being misled by traders, and being exposed to adulterants and zoonotic diseases. Given the extensive legal framework that already exists to regulate the trade in traditional medicine, robust efforts must be made by the executive to vastly increase enforcement of these laws, in order to protect consumers and promote conservation of species, with a view to maintaining ecological sustainability in light of cultural demands.


[1] Martin John Whiting et al., Animals Traded for Traditional Medicine at the Faraday Market in South Africa: Species Diversity and Conservation Implications, Journal of Zoology (1987), vol. 284, no. 2, 2011, at 84.

[2] Willem Nieman et al., Traditional Medicinal Animal Use by Xhosa and Sotho Communities in the Western Cape Province, South Africa, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 15, no. 1, 2019, at 1.

[3] Id.

[4] Supra, note 1, at 85.

[5] Supra, note 1, at 85.

[6] Vivienne Williams et al., A Picture of Health? Animal Use and the Faraday Traditional Medicine Market, South Africa, Journal of ethnopharmacology, vol. 179, 2016, at 265-73.

[7] Supra, note 2.

[8] Supra, note 1, at 88; Supra, note 2.

[9] Supra, note 6.

[10] Supra, note 1, at 84-85, 87-88.

[11] Supra, note 6.

[12] Supra, note 6.

[13] ; (last visited Feb. 23, 2022).

[14] Supra, note 1, at 88,92.

[15] VL Williams et al., Reptiles Sold as Traditional Medicine in Xipamanine and Xiquelene Markets (Maputo, Mozambique), S Afr J Sci., 2016, at 4.

[16] Fan Yang et al., DNA Barcoding for the Identification and Authentication of Animal Species in Traditional Medicine, Hindawi, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018, at 2.

[17] Id., at 1.

[18] Supra, note 15, at 1,6.

[19] Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Constitution).

[20] Consumer Protection Act, 2008 (Act No. 68/2008) (za).

[21] Animals Protection Act, 1962 (Act No. 71/1962) (za) (APA).

[22] National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (Act No. 107/1998) (za) (NEMA); National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 2004 (Act No. 10/2004) (za) (NEMBA); Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, 2007, under NEMBA (za) (TOPS).

[23] Animal Health Act, 2002 (Act No. 7/2002) (za); Animal Diseases Act, 1984 (Act No. 35/1984) (za); Meat Safety Act, 2000 (Act No. 40/2000) (za).

[24] Animal Diseases Act, 1984 (Act No. 35/1984) (za), at preamble.

[25] Animal Health Act 7 of 2002, South African Government (last visited Feb. 25, 2022),to%20provide%20for%20matters%20connected%20therewith.%20More%20.

[26] Supra, note 21, at § 1(i).

[27] Supra, note 21, at § 1(i).

[28] Supra, note 19, at § 24.

[29] Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008, South African Government (last visited Feb. 25, 2022)

[30] Meat Safety Act 40 of 2000, South African Government (last visited Feb. 25, 2022),of%20abattoirs%3B%20to%20provide%20for%20matters%20connected%20therewith.

[31] National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998, South African Government (last visited Feb. 25, 2022)

[32] National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004, South African Government (last visited Feb. 25, 2022),of%20species%20and%20ecosystems%20that%20warrant%20national%20protection%3B.

[33] Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, 2007, under NEMBA (TOPS) § 2.

[34] Supra, note 1, at 84.


Nicola van Wyk