ENUGU, NIGERIA - Across Nigeria, there's a rising demand for vultures, and poachers are driving the local population of four large vulture species to near extinction.
The Nigerian Conservation Foundation is now placing vulture preservation high on its agenda, hoping to revive the threatened population. Abidemi Balogun, a senior special conservation officer with the foundation's educational unit, is engaging with local communities where superstitions and folklore about the birds persist.
"Someone actually asked me how do they identity the evil ones because there's been a belief that vultures are evil birds," Balogun told VOA with a laugh.
She's been with the foundation for eight years and said vulture poaching was not taken seriously in the past.
She said that the birds aren't being hunted for consumption as much as they're being killed for spiritual practices. In 2017, the foundation conducted a market survey to see how the birds were traded.
"Some of the findings that we made is that the head is used for ritual purposes and the head is the most expensive part of it," she said.
In local markets, vulture feathers are sold for about 100 naira, or less than 50 cents. But the head can fetch up to 25,000 naira, or about $70.
In Nigeria's diverse cultural landscape, the beliefs around vultures vary widely. In the southwest, where they're called igún, vultures are seen as sacred in traditional spirituality. According to folklore, they can be used to communicate with the dead or to appease the gods in elaborate sacrificial ceremonies.
In northern Nigeria, they are consumed. But they're also sold by traders known as yan shinfida to be used in traditional medicine and spiritual healing.
A 2013 report cited traders in the north marketing vulture parts to treat epilepsy, mental instability and stroke, as well as to offer supernatural protection, good luck, pain relief and relief for women in labor. Some say the head possesses clairvoyant powers.
In southeastern Nigeria, the bird is not eaten and has no place in traditional spirituality, Ike Nwakamma of the Nigerian Supreme Council of Traditional Worshippers told VOA. He said it is viewed as unclean, and therefore unacceptable to traditional gods. People don't want them around, whether alive or dead.
That's why an incident that happened in July caused panic at a local market.
Amateur videos captured shocked and fearful reactions at the sight of 50 dead vultures on the ground at Eke-Ihe market in the Awgu community, in the southeastern state of Enugu.
Igwe Godwin Ekoh, the traditional ruler of Ihe and the chairman of the Agwu Traditional Rulers Council, told VOA that a poacher had killed the vultures en masse, using poisoned meat, to sell the corpses.
Vulture trafficking has become a lucrative trade. The NIgerian Conservation foundation said 500 tons of vultures are trafficked every month.
BirdLife International, a global partnership organization, said that across Africa, vulture populations have virtually collapsed in the last 30 years, with poisoning as the major threat.
In June, 537 vultures were found dead in Botswana's northeast, after ingesting poison left by elephant poachers.
BirdLife International describes vultures as nature's sanitary workers, worthy of being celebrated.
In Enugu last week, Igwe Ekoh attended a forum that was organized by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation for International Vulture Awareness Day, held on the first Saturday every September. The foundation held workshops in Jalingo, Ibadan and Sokoto as well as Enugu.
Attendants at the Enugu edition went to a popular market to talk to meat butchers and asked them to inform authorities if they ever saw vulture parts being sold.
Igwe Ekoh said he left the forum with a newfound appreciation for vultures, saying he learned about how they are vital to reducing the spread of bacteria of dead animals.
A local NGO, the South Saharan Development Organization (SSDO), has agreed to partner with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. SSDO will set up conservation clubs for high school students to learn about the environment and the role of animals, including vultures, in sustaining nature.
"It's holistic," SSDO's executive director, Dr. Stanley Ilechukwu, told VOA.