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The role of African traditions and beliefs in wildlife conservation

April 15, 2021
tags:#conservation, #Africa, #wildlife protection, #totem
located:Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Uganda
by:Cyril Zenda
The desire to own a python skin belt proved costly for Tapiwa Mpofu, a villager from Zimbabwe’s Hurungwe communal areas who is now serving a nine-year jail term. Two years ago, the 41-year old man was convicted for violating the Parks and Wildlife Act after he was found in possession of a three-metre long python's skin.

While the semi-literate villager maintained that he only skinned the reptile after finding it dead on the edges of the road - possibly having been crushed by a bus or a truck - his pleas did not diminish his crime because under the country’s severe wildlife laws killing or being found in possession of an endangered wild animal (or even the smallest of their parts) carry the same mandatory nine-year jail term. 

Had the dead animal that Mpofu picked and skinned not been a python or if he lived in another community, he may not be languishing in jail at all as none of his neighbours would have cared. It was not because of his neighbours’ jealousy or malice that they reported him to the local chief, however, but their revulsion and outrage at what they regarded as an abomination. 

According to local traditional beliefs, a python is a sacred creature whose violation may anger the gods to the extent of collectively punishing the whole community by withholding the rains or some other calamity. It is this fear of the putative dire consequences of inviting the wrath of the spirit world that caused Mpofu’s neighbours to promptly report him to the traditional leadership.

Whether the fear of the Hurungwe villagers is true or not is debatable, but this is one of the many African traditional beliefs which, since time immemorial, have served to preserve local flora and fauna from wanton destruction and even extinction.

Totems for conservation

Southern African countries pride themselves as champions in wildlife conservation. The region does not only have the largest numbers of some of the wildlife species that have become extinct in other parts of the world, but also sees steady increases in the numbers of animals such as elephants, rhinos, pangolins and some members of the cat family.

The secret to this success does not just lie in strict policing and deterrent jail sentences, but also in the critical role that tradition and African belief systems have always played in wildlife management. 

Beliefs associating some animals like pangolins with good luck, hyenas with witchcraft, or killing pythons with severe droughts contribute to wildlife conservation efforts. 

In addition, the totem system has also contributed towards wildlife conservation because animals have long served as totems - or emblems of clans or families - that are sometimes considered to have magical and or sacred qualities. 

People of the elephant, zebra, lion, kudu and other totems not only do not kill these animals, but actually protect them as members of their own clan. 

“In Africa, chiefs decorated their stools and other court items with their personal totems, or with those of the tribe or of the clans making up the larger community,” said Rukariro Katsande, an anthropologist.

“It was a duty of each community member to protect and defend the totem. This obligation ranged from not harming that animal or plant, to actively feeding, rescuing or caring for it as needed,” he added.  “African tales are told of how men became heroes for rescuing their totems. This has continued in some African societies, where totems are treasured and preserved for the community’s good.”

“Today, up to 25 different totems can be identified among the Shona ethnic grouping (in Zimbabwe), and similar totems exist among other South African groups such as the Zulu, the Ndebele, and the Herero in Botswana and Namibia,” explained Katsande, who recently became acting Chief Nyamukoho of Mutoko in north eastern Zimbabwe following the death of his father who was the substantive chief.

Totem is a continent-wide phenomenon

Katsande said that the phenomenon was not confined to Zimbabwe and southern Africa alone, as it is found all over the continent and has supplemented conservation efforts. 

“Totems have also been described as a traditional environmental conservation method besides being for kinship,” he stated, adding that, “Totemism can lead to environmental protection due to some tribes having multiple totems. For example, over 100 plant and animal species are considered totems among the Batooro (omuziro), Banyoro and Baganda (omuzilo) tribes in Uganda, a similar number of species are considered totems among tribes in Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic, (CAR).”

Even the African Wildlife Foundation is working with the people of the elephant and other totems to fight poaching along the Zambezi valley, a wildlife sanctuary on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. 

With some African communities still steeped in these traditions and belief systems, sometimes fear of going to jail is nothing compared to the fear of inviting the wrath of ancestral spirits. 

It remains to be seen, however, how long these traditional beliefs will continue to withstand the lure of big money that drives the international wildlife trafficking syndicates as commercial poaching becomes a real menace on the African continent.

Image: Paul Ellis

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe Central African Republic Uganda
Embed from Getty Images
Mundari tribe woman standing in front of a totem made of cow horns, Central Equatoria, Terekeka, South Sudan in November 2019. Totems are found all over the African continent and have supplemented conservation efforts.
© Eric Lafforgue/ Art in All of Us
Embed from Getty Images
People of the elephant, zebra, lion, kudu and other totems not only do not kill these animals, but actually protect them as members of their own clan. 
© Yasuyoshi Chiba
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