A picture of health? Animal use and the Faraday traditional medicine market, South Africa

Vivienne Linda Williams*, Martin John Whiting

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

17 Citations (Scopus)


Ethnopharmacological relevance The use of animals and plants as traditional remedies for both medical afflictions and social or cultural issues (symbolism) has a long history in South Africa and a reasonably large proportion of the population will consult a traditional healer during their life-time. Compared to plants, the use of animal parts in traditional medicine and folklore is poorly documented. 

Methods We interviewed 32 traders from South Africa's largest traditional medicine market, the Faraday Street market in Johannesburg, of which only 20 consented to supplying some species use information. Traders are particularly protective of the medicinal properties of their wares. Given the sensitive nature of this information (12 traders declined to be interviewed), we were only able to gather data on their perceived uses and no data on dosages, efficacy, or individual turn-over of products. We assessed the trade of animal parts from the perspective of consumer needs by analysing use-categories (e.g. headaches, strokes, skin problems, bad luck, etc.) and the degree of informant consensus in the selection of fauna to treat certain conditions. 

Results We documented 301 uses for animal parts from 52 species and 18 'morphospecies' that we allocated to 122 broad-use categories. Overall, reptiles and mammals were the most frequently used taxa in traditional medicine and some species had multiple uses (i.e., appeared in multiple use-categories) including crocodiles, lizards generally, chameleons, striped polecats, elephants and jackals. Animals were mostly used for 'strength' (physical or overcoming fear), but also as love charms, warding off bad luck or bad spirits or improving one's luck. Only 36% of our categories were medicinal (e.g., headaches, skin problems, swollen feet, etc.). We also found a high rate of non-disclosure of uses per species (a mean 86% of traders did not reveal information on the use of a species), and a variable degree of consensus between the traders on what particular species are actually used for. 

Conclusions We suggest that traditional medicine markets provide a unique opportunity to gauge the health and symbolic or personal issues representative of a large sector of society. What's more, we recommend that researchers be more mindful in the way that use information is reported. We also highlight the potentially serious threat of traditional medicine to species that may be particularly vulnerable by virtue of their restricted distribution or predictable behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)265-273
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2016


  • Conservation
  • Doctrine of Signatures
  • Ethnozoology
  • South Africa
  • Zootherapy

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