Arresting the Albino Hunters

Tanzania has made strides in holding hundreds of witchdoctors accountable for the deplorable practice of butchering people to make "magical" potions.

A woman holds her albino child before registering him at the office of the Tanzania Albino Society (TAS) in Dar Es Salaam.  (Reuters)

The Tanzanian police have arrested more than 200 unlicensed traditional healers linked to recent murders and kidnappings of the country's albino population. The East African country banned witchdoctors in January, but the government is now using force to try to put an end to the grisly practice of albino hunting: At least 76 albinos have been murdered in Tanzania since 2000, while dozens have had limbs hacked off and survived.

Why Are Albinos Being Attacked?

Some Tanzanians believe that potions made from albino body parts have magical properties, bringing good luck or wealth to those who consume them. "When you bring [a witch doctor] a body part, such as an arm, a leg or a finger, the witch doctor will make a potion with it," Issac Timothy, an albino activist from the town of Geita told NPR. "A miner will pour it in the ground where he wants to find minerals or a fisherman will pour it in his canoe."

The Red Cross says witchdoctors are prepared to pay as much as $75,000 for a set of albino body parts, and the set of items found in the possession of the arrested witch doctors—including warthog teeth, monkey tails, and lion skin—reveals the breadth of superstitious medical beliefs in the area.

What Causes Albinism?  

Tanzania isn't the only country in the region where albinos are attacked: The United Nations recently condemned the kidnapping of an 11-year-old girl in Malawi, whose uncle said he was promised $6,500 for her body. Tanzania's problem, though, is especially acute, as the country has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world.

Nearly one in 1,400 Tanzanians are affected by the congenital disorder, compared with 1 in 20,000 worldwide. Why? Scientists theorize that East Africa may be the birthplace of the mutation, and because albino people are socially excluded, they often end up marrying one another, which increases the chance their children will be affected.

How Can Albinos Be Protected?

In October 2013, only five albino murders in Tanzania had been successfully prosecuted. Tanzanian gangs have even reportedly crossed into neighboring Kenya to carry out abductions. But the government has opened boarding schools and shelters for albino children in some parts of the country, and it's enlisted educators to debunk false beliefs about the population: A common Tanzanian belief is that albinos, instead of dying like everyone else, simply vanish like ghosts.

The January ban on witchdoctors was the next step. "These so-called witches bear responsibility for the attacks against albinos," interior ministry spokesman Isaac Nantanga told Agence France Presse. The aggressive police campaign that sparked this week's raids is a sign that the nation is getting serious about ending the abductions. Some 97 of the detained shamans have already appeared in court.

Still, even with more raids like this, it could take years to stop the practice. In 2013, National Geographic's Dan Gilgoff asked Ziada Ally Asembo—an albino woman who is an albino activist—about the government's progress. How can Tanzania get albino body parts off the market?

"We don't know who the killers are," she said. "And we don't know who buys them."