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.