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A study on use of animals as traditional medicine by Sukuma Tribe of Busega District in North-western Tanzania



Faunal resources have played an extensive range of roles in human life from the initial days of recorded history. In addition to their importance, animals have been acknowledged in religion, art, music and literature and several other different cultural manifestations of mankind. Human beings are acquainted with use of animals for foodstuff, cloth, medicine, etc. since ancient times. Huge work has been carried out on ethnobotany and traditional medicine. Animal and their products are also holding medicinal properties that can be exploited for the benefit of human beings like plants. In Tanzania, many tribal communities are spread all over the country and these people are still totally depended on local customary medicinal system for their health care. In the world Tanzania is gifted with wide range of floral and faunal biodiversity. The use of traditional medicine from animals by Sukuma ethnic group of Busega district is the aim of the present study.


In order to collect the information on ethnozoological use about animal and their products predominant among this tribe in Busega district, a study was carried out from August 2012, to July 2013. Data were collected through semi-structured questionnaire and open interview with 180 (118 male and 62 females) selected people. The people from whom the data were collected comprise old age community members, traditional health practicener, fishermen and cultural officers. The name of animal and other ethnozoological information were documented. Pictures and discussion were also recorded with the help of camera and voice recorder.


A total of 42 various animal species were used in nearly 30 different medicinal purposes including STD, stoppage of bleeding, reproductive disorders, asthma, weakness, tuberculosis, cough, paralysis and wound and for other religious beliefs. It has been noticed that animal used by Sukuma tribe, comprise of seventeen mammals, seven birds, four reptiles, eight arthropods and two mollusks. Some of the protected species were also used as important medicinal resources. We also found that cough, tuberculosis, asthma and other respiratory diseases are the utmost cited disease, as such, a number of traditional medicines are available for the treatment.


The present work indicates that 42 animal species were being used to treat nearly 30 different ailments and results show that ethnozoological practices are an important alternative medicinal practice by the Sukuma tribe living in Bungesa district. The present study also indicates the very rich ethnozoological knowledge of these people in relation to traditional medicine. So there is a critical need to properly document to keep a record of the ethnozoological information. We hope that the information generated in this study will be useful for further research in the field of ethnozoology, ethnopharmacology and conservation approach.


Faunal resources have played a wide range of roles in human life from the earliest days of recorded history. Human beings are familiar with use of animals and plants for food, cloth, medicine, etc. since ancient times [1,2]. The study of relationship between the human societies and the animal resources around them deals under Ethnozoology [3]. Since prehistoric time’s animals, their parts, and products have created part of the inventory of medicinal substances used in numerous cultures [4]. The world health organization estimates that most of the world’s population relies primarily on animal and plant based medicines [5]. Of the 252 indispensible chemicals that have been selected by the World Health Organization, 8.7% derived from animals [6]. In Brazil, Alves et al. reported the medicinal use of 283 animal species for the treatment of various ailments [7]. In Bahia state, in the northeast of Brazil, over 180 medicinal animals have been recorded in traditional health care practices [8]. In Traditional Chinese Medicine more than 1500 animal species have been recorded to be some medicinal use [9]. Alves and Rosa recorded the use of 97 animal species as traditional medicine in urban areas of NE and N Brazil [10]. Lev and Amar conducted a survey in the selected markets of Israel and found 20 animal species, which products were sold as traditional drugs [11]. Tamang people of Nepal identify the 11 animal species for used in zootherapeutic purposes [12]. Alves and Rosa in the North and north- east regions of Brazil carried out a survey in fishing communities and recorded 138 animal species, used as traditional medicine [13]. Alves et al. also reported nearly 165 reptile’s species were used in traditional folk medicine around the world [14]. Alves conducted a review study in Northeast Brazil and lists 250 animal species for the treatment of diverse ailments [15]. Lev and Amar conducted a study in the selected markets in the kingdom of Jordan and identified 30 animal species, and their products were retailed as traditional medications [16]. In India use of traditional medicine are documented in works like Ayurveda and Charaka Samhita. A number of animals are mentioned in Ayurvedic system, which includes 41 Mammals, 41 Aves, 16 Reptiles, 21 Fishes and 24 Insects [17]. Different ethnic group and tribal people use animals and their products for healing practices of human ailments in present times in India [18]. In Hindu religion people used the various products obtained from the cow viz. milk, urine, dung, curd and ghee since ancient times [19].

Tanzania is gifted with immense faunal and floral biodiversity, because of the thrilling variation in geographical and climatic condition prevailing in the country. In Tanzania, traditional medicine has existed even before colonial times. It used to play a vital role in the doctrine of chiefdoms that existed during pre-colonial era. Colonialists, with their intension to rule Africa had to find a way to discourage all sort of activities which would have provided an opportunity for developing Africans [20]. In Tanzania, different tribal communities are dispersed all over the country, people of these communities are extremely knowledgeable about the animals and their medicinal value, and they also deliver extensive information about the use of animals and their by-products as medicine. Most of the tribal people are totally dependent on local traditional medicinal system for their health care because they are living in very remote areas where hospital and other modern medicinal facilities are not available and even negligible, so they use their traditional knowledge for medicinal purpose and this knowledge is passed through oral communication from generation to generation. It is estimated that more than 80% of the rural population in Tanzania depends on the traditional medicine [21].

A lot of work has been done on utilization of plants and their products as traditional and allopathic medicine in the world. Like plants, animal and their products also keep medicinal properties [22]. Most ethnobiological studies conducted in Tanzania have focused on traditional knowledge of plants and less in animals [23,24]. A little work has been done in Ethnozoology in Tanzania and particularly no work is documented in Sukuma tribe and there is a definite scarcity of ethnobiological knowledge when it comes to animal products. The present study briefly reports an ethnomedicinal/traditional medicinal study among Sukuma tribe in Bugusa district in Tanzania.


The study area

The intended study was carried out in Busega District at Simiyu region. The Busega district is one of five districts in Simiyu Region of Tanzania, namely, Meatu, Itilima, Bariadi, Maswa and Busega. Busega district is located on the northwestern part of Simiyu Region and shares borders with Magu districts in west, Bariadi districts in south, The southeastern part is covered by the Serengeti game reserve and Bunda district. In north side it bordered with Lake Victoria. As a result, many community members utilize both aquatic and terrestrial organisms as a source of medicine.

Busega district is located between latitude 20 10’ and 20 50’ South and between longitude 330 and 340 East. The district headquarter is in Nyashimo town. The district is divided into thirteen (13) wards and fifty four (54) villages as per Tanzania Population and Housing Census 2012 [25]. Busega district is Tropical in nature with sun overhead of equator on March and October. Temperature is tropical and range between 25°C and 30°C with average annual temperature of 27°C. There are two wet seasons, the long rains from mid-March to early June, during which the precipitation is between 700 mm to 1000 mm and averages 800 mm per annum and short rains from October to December, during which the rainfall is between 400 mm to 500 mm [26]. Figure 1: Map of the study area.

Figure 1
figure 1

Map of Simiyu region showing all district under the region including District Busega (Wilaya ya Busega).

The Sukuma tribe

The Sukuma are a patrilineal society; the role of the women being to take care of their husbands and children while men are overseer of the family [27,28]. Young people marry only when they are ready to carry the responsibilities marriage entails. They are initiated into adulthood in a ceremony known as “lhane”. The Sukuma do not practice circumcision as part of initiation, but organize a separate ceremony. The young people involved in “lhane” have to be prepared well. Respected elders of the community tutor the initiates on their roles and responsibilities in the family and the whole community. The initiates have to think, act and participate as adults in all rituals. After “lhane” the initiates are considered adults and cannot be asked to deliver messages anywhere as this is a job for non-initiates [28].

The Sukuma are believed to being very superstitious, and most will seek aid from the “Bafumu”, “Balaguzi” and “Basomboji” locally used to refer as medicine men, diviners and sooth sayers, respectively. The Basukuma have many stories based on their beliefs on death and sufferings. Traditional healers believe that fate is determined by “Shing’wengwe” and “Shishieg’we”, that is ogres and spirits. The ogres are usually shown as being half human, half demon, or as terrible monsters [28]. The economic condition of the Sukuma people is not good. Agriculture, animal husbandry; poultry forming and laboring are source of income. Educational level is also found very low. The life of the people are full of traditions and social customs from birth to death owning to outdated customs, not attuned to remain competitive in the current economic scenario of privatization [Figures 2, 3, 4, 5].

Figure 2
figure 2

Sukuma lady doing traditional prayer.

Figure 3
figure 3

Ancestral shrines in a rural Sukuma healer’s compound.

Figure 4
figure 4

Sukuma lady with her children and traditional house.

Figure 5
figure 5

Traditional healers selling medicines in local market.


In order to obtain ethnozoological information about animal and their products used in traditional medicine, a study was conducted from August 2012 to July 2013 in the Busega district of Simiyu region, Tanzania. The ethnomedicinal data (local name of animals, mode of preparation and administration) were collected through semi-structured questionnaire (in their local language mainly Kiswahili, with the help of local mediator), interview and group discussion with selected people of the tribe. The selection of informants was based on their experience, recognition as expert and knowledge old aged person concerning traditional medicine. A total of 180 (118 male and 62 female) people were selected to collect ethnozoological information, these information were collected from local traditional healers, farmers, fisherman and cultural officer. We interviewed 98 (55%) informants within age group 55 and above, followed by 42 informants (23%) with 45 to 54 age group and 40 (22%) with 35–44 years age group.

They were inquired, about the illnesses cured by animal based medicines and the manner in which the medicines were prepared and administered. They were also requested thorough information about mode of preparation and blending of animal products used as ingredients and whether they use animal in the healing practice, since this type of information indicate how a given medicine can be therapeutically effective in term of the right ingredients, the proper dose and the right length of medication. The name of animals and other related information to this study were documented. Some pictures of Sukuma people at their local place and in their life style in study area were taken.

As stated by them, their traditional ethnozoological acquaintance was mainly attained through parental heritage and experience about medicinal value of animal to heal their families or themselves. The scientific name and species of animals were identified using relevant and standard literature [29,30].

Data analysis

For the data analysis, fidelity level (FL) calculated that demonstrates the percentage of respondents claiming the use of a certain animal species for the same illnesses, was calculated for the most frequently reported diseases or ailments as:

$$ \mathrm{F}\mathrm{L}\left(\%\right) = \mathrm{N}\mathrm{p} \times 100\ /\ \mathrm{N} $$

Where Np is the number of respondents that claim a use of a species to treat a specific disease, and N is the number of respondents that use the animals as a medicine to treat any given disease [31]. The range of fidelity level (FL) is from 1% to 100%. High use value (close to 100%) show that this particular animal species are used by large number of people while a low value show that the respondents disagree on that spices to be used in the treatment of ailments.

Result and discussion

The present study revealed the traditional medicinal knowledge of treating many types of ailments using different animal and their products by the local Sukuma people inhabitants of Simuyu region, Tanzania. Many old generation people were found to lack formal education, but they have acquaintance about use of local faunal and floral resources for traditional medicinal and other purposes [12], Sukuma people are one of them [Table 1].

Table 1 Knowledge of animal resource use among Sukuma Tribe of Busega District

The Table 1 shows that, Sukuma people of Busega district were using 42 animal species for the treatment of over 30 different kinds of illnesses. The animal species used as traditional medicine by these people comprise of seventeen mammals, seven birds, four reptiles, eight arthropods and two mollusks species. Highest number of animal belonged to mammalian taxonomic group (n = 17, 41%), birds (n = 7, 17%), reptiles (n = 4, 9.5%), fishes (n = 4, 9.5%) and arthropods (n = 8, 19%) respectively. Sukuma people use these animal and their products for the treatment of more than 30 types of different illnesses including asthma, paralysis, cough, fever, cold, STD, wound healing etc. These animals were used as whole or byproducts of these animals like milk, blood, organ, flesh, tooth, urine, honey, feather etc. for the treatment of various illnesses and used in the preparations of traditional medicine [Figures 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13].

Figure 6
figure 6

Threskiornis aethiopicus.

Figure 7
figure 7

Butastur rufipennis.

Figure 8
figure 8

Agama Mwanzae.

Figure 9
figure 9

Trigoniulus corallines.

Figure 10
figure 10

Skin of Panthera leo.

Figure 11
figure 11

Dried Mormyrus kannume.

Figure 12
figure 12

Achatina Fulica Shell.

Figure 13
figure 13

Dried Asterias sp.

Fidelity levels (FL) demonstrate the percentage of respondents claiming the use of a certain animals for curing of the illness. The uses of animals that are generally known by the Sukuma respondents have higher fidelity level is shown in Table 1.

Table: 1 also shows that cough, Tuberculosis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases are most frequently quoted disease among Sukuma people, as such, a number of traditional medicine are available for the treatment of such diseases, many animal byproducts were used like flesh of gazelle, horn of rhino, nail of mungos, and honey are some of them. Another important aspect of the present study that needs to be mentioned is that the Sukuma people also use some endangered, vulnerable and near threatened animal species as medicinal resources. A total of 42 identified animal species, of which 12 (28.57%) are included in the IUCN Red Data list [32]. It is important to mention here that species such as Tanzanian woolly bat, grey crowned crane, are listed as endangered while Black rhino and Victoria tilapia are listed as critically endangered and hippopotamus, African elephant, Simba (Panthera leo), Cobra (Naja siamensis) are listed as vulnerable in IUCN Red Data list. These tribal people have scarce knowledge, many irrational belief and myths associated with customs that cause harm to animal life. Thus these traditional medicine and animals byproducts should be tested for their appropriate medicinal components, if cited animal species among these people, byproducts of these animals, were used in the treatment of various illnesses.

Sukuma people also use one animal product with other animal products or plant derivatives to found indefensible, the people should be aware about the endangered and protected animal species and their importance in biodiversity. Consequently, the socio-ecological system has to be strengthened through sustainable management and conservation of biodiversity [33] [Table 2].

Table 2 Conservation status of animal utilized in traditional medicine

Main threats of conservations in Tanzania includes overexploitation of natural resources due to poverty, rapid human population growths, weak wildlife policy and legislations, habitat alterations as well as inadequate funding. Poaching or illegal off take of wildlife resources has gone continuously regardless of wildlife conservation laws. However, traditional hunters in Tanzania have not been serious threat to wildlife. Wildlife populations are threatened by commercial poaching in which animal are used in bush meat trade and traditional medicine [34]. Despite medicinal purpose, Sukuma people also use animal resources for other purpose in their daily life. The Sukuma people use slough (molted skin of various animals) to decorate their traditional houses and this type of decoration are also reported in many other tribes living in other parts of Tanzania [Figures 14, 15, 16, 17].

Figure 14
figure 14

Different products obtained from animal resources among Sukuma Tribes.

Figure 15
figure 15

Different products obtained from animal resources among Sukuma Tribes.

Figure 16
figure 16

Different products obtained from animal resources among Sukuma Tribes.

Figure 17
figure 17

Different products obtained from animal resources among Sukuma Tribes.


The current study shows that forty two animals were found to be used among Sukuma tribe of Busega district. Twelve animal species are officially considered as threatened species by IUCN red list (2012) were found among the set of faunistic resources prescribed as medicines at the time of this research. The latter author noted that Sukuma healers who are also diviners are more likely to use both wild and domesticated animals in their diagnoses. Moreover mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians have been used in the field of traditional medicine for different purposes. However, mammals seem to be used much (40.50%) compare to other group among Sukuma tribe, followed by aves (16.7%). Amphibians are not commonly used in Sukuma society.

The present study also shows that the Sukuma people have very rich folklore and traditional knowledge in the utilization of different animal. So there is an urgent need to properly document to keep a record of the ethnomedicinal data of animal products and their medicinal uses. More studies are prerequisite for scientific validation to endorse medicinal value of such products and to include this knowledge in policies of conservation and management of animal resources. We hope that the present information will be helpful in further research in the field of ethnozoology, ethnopharmacology and biodiversity conservation viewpoint.


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Authors are thankful to the Head and Dean of Biological sciences for providing all facilities and reinforcements during the study. We are also highly grateful to all the respondents who shared their traditional ethnozoological knowledge and permitted us to take pictures. Without their involvement, this study would have been impossible.

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Correspondence to Rajeev Vats.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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All authors had significant intellectual contribution towards the design of the field study, data collection, data analysis and write-up of the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Vats, R., Thomas, S. A study on use of animals as traditional medicine by Sukuma Tribe of Busega District in North-western Tanzania. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 11, 38 (2015).

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