The role of African traditions and beliefs in the conservation of wildlife


The desire to own a python skin belt has proved costly for Tapiwa Mpofu, a villager from Hurungwe communal areas in Zimbabwe who is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence. Two years ago, the 41-year-old was found guilty of breaking the parks and wildlife law after he was found in possession of a three-meter-long python skin.

While the semi-literate villager argued that he only skinned the reptile after he found it dead on the sides of the road – possibly after being run over by a bus or truck – his pleas no ‘did not diminish his crime because under the country’s tough wildlife laws, murder or being found in possession of an endangered wild animal (or even the smallest of its parts) is punishable by the same mandatory nine-year prison sentence.

If the dead animal Mpofu picked and skinned hadn’t been a python or lived in another community, he might not be languishing in jail at all because none of his neighbors would have cared. . It was not because of the jealousy or wickedness of his neighbors that they had denounced him to the local chief, but their loathing and indignation at what they considered an abomination.

According to local traditional beliefs, a python is a sacred creature whose violation can irritate the gods to the point of collectively punishing the entire community by withholding rains or any other calamity. It was this fear of the putative dire consequences of inviting the wrath of the Spirit World that prompted Mpofu’s neighbors to quickly denounce him to traditional rulers.

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

Totems for conservation

The countries of Southern Africa are proud to be champions of wildlife conservation. The region not only has the highest number of extinct wildlife in other parts of the world, but also sees a steady increase in the number of animals such as elephants, rhinos, pangolins and some members of the family of cats. .

The secret to this success lies not only in strict policing and deterrent prison sentences, but also in the essential role that African tradition and belief systems have always played in wildlife management.

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

Additionally, the totemic system has also contributed to wildlife conservation as animals have long served as totems – or emblems of clans or families – which are sometimes considered to have magical and / or sacred qualities.

The 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 clans making up the larger community,” said Rukariro Katsande, anthropologist.

“It was the duty of every member of the community to protect and defend the totem pole. This obligation went not to harm this animal or this plant, to feed it actively, to save it or to take care of it as needed, ”he added. “African tales tell how men became heroes for saving their totems. This continued in some African societies, where totem poles are cherished and preserved for the good of the community.

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

Totem is a continent-wide phenomenon

Katsande said the phenomenon is not limited to Zimbabwe and southern Africa, as it is found all over the continent and completed conservation efforts.

“Totem poles have also been described as a traditional method of conserving the environment besides being for kinship,” he said, adding that “totemism can lead to environmental protection due to due to the fact that some tribes have more than one totem pole. For example, more than 100 species of plants and animals are considered to be totems among the Batooro (omuziro), Banyoro and Baganda (omuzilo) tribes in Uganda, a similar number of species are considered totem poles among the tribes of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR).

Even the African Wildlife Foundation work with the elephant people and other totem poles 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 the fear of going to jail is nothing compared to the fear of drawing the wrath of ancestral spirits.

It remains to be seen, however, how long these traditional beliefs will continue to resist the lure of the large sums of money driving international wildlife trafficking unions as commercial poaching becomes a real threat on the African continent. .

Picture: Paul Ellis.

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