South Africa's national lottery is claiming an unlikely victim: vultures. Local people -- convinced these birds' superb eyesight gives them the gift to see the future -- are eating vulture meat to acquire the power of clairvoyance.
And they are not alone. In neighboring Zimbabwe, voters fearful of supporting the losing side in recent elections ate vulture meat, mainly heads, talons, eyes and hearts, believing this would enable them to pick the winning party. Then there has been the rise of traditional medicines, for which vulture parts are highly valued, as well as soaring cases of poisoning and shootings by starving farmers in East and West Africa.
In addition, in South Asia over the past five years, the use of the painkiller diclofenac in cattle has wiped out three species of vultures and reduced the remaining two species to a few dozen pairs of breeding birds. The drug, it was discovered recently, destroys the birds' kidneys.
In short, the vulture -- the ultimate scavenger, for ever associated with pitiless opportunism -- has been sent spiraling towards extinction, according to ornithologists.
"Something very, very bad is happening to the vulture," said Guy Rondeau, of Afrique Nature International. "There has been an almost total collapse in numbers in many parts of the world."
The consequence of this dramatic decline is not merely an issue that should concern wildlife enthusiasts, scientists say. Vultures' ability to pinpoint corpses as they circle hundreds of meters in the air, combined with their power to strip carcasses clean of their flesh in minutes, mean they are vital in limiting the spread of diseases in livestock. With vultures around, corpses don't get a chance to rot and act as reservoirs for disease.
This problem has reached the level of a major ecological issue in Asia, said ornithologist Mark Anderson, who is based in South Africa.
"In India the cow is sacred and cannot be eaten. So it was traditionally left to vultures to eat their corpses. Without vultures, packs of feral dogs have taken over." he said.
These packs are "destroying livestock and wildlife, harassing people and sometimes spreading rabies and other diseases," added Chris Bowden, a vulture expert with the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
In addition, the Parsees of India, who leave their dead on "towers of silence" to be picked clean by vultures, have had to develop alternatives. In Mumbai, one group bought six "solar concentrators" -- mirrors -- to cremate corpses using sun power.
A measure of this loss is provided by recent surveys which indicate that vulture numbers have dropped by 95 percent in West Africa.
"It also appears there has been a similar, drastic reduction in East Africa," Anderson said.
"The situation is catastrophic," said Francis Lauginie, of Afrique Nature International. "Conservation efforts have to be urgently introduced. This could have irreversible consequences for regional ecosystems and communities."
The exact causes of the disappearance of the vulture in Africa are unclear.
"In Asia, diclofenac was responsible," Rondeau said.
"But that is not the case in Africa. It is hardly used there. There seems to be a number of causes. The need for vulture flesh to satisfy markets for traditional medicines, their links with clairvoyance, hunting and deliberate poisoning are probably all involved," Rondeau said.