Ancestral practices for the protection of elephants in Mali

Feb 20, 2021 | Commentary

By Colonel-Major Bourama Niagate (retired)

In Africa, and particularly in Mali, elephants have always been of fundamental cultural and traditional importance. The protection of this majestic pachyderm is therefore not new: the Malian population has been taking measures to ensure the species’ survival for generations. The challenges of our time – including increased poaching and habitat loss – make this work increasingly difficult, but the Malian people’s love for African elephants is not waning.

Sometimes we believe that everything has just been invented – that everything is new. This is true of efforts to protect wildlife. Of course, our times bring challenges that are sometimes new, sometimes exacerbated. Yet, in Africa, nature conservation in general has always been ensured through traditional practices and knowledge, handed down from generation to generation.

Traditional rules of nature protection

Thus, in most traditional African societies, particularly in Mali, ancestral beliefs and practices have always played an important role in the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, including wildlife. Often, as is the case in most countries of the world, protection efforts derive from a desire to be able to continue exploiting certain species. Indeed, for rural communities, wildlife is a fundamental source of protein, and only the conservation of this wildlife allows the survival of the human species.

In many communities, therefore, the exploitation and use of species has always had to comply with strict traditional rules and customs – the aim of these uses is precisely to conserve a sufficient number of individuals of each species. For example, some species are forbidden to hunt during certain periods, some are revered as deities, and hunting is reserved only for certain initiated members of the community. Often, any outsider must obtain permission from the patriarchs of the community before being allowed to access certain sites or take natural resources.

Failure to comply with these traditional regulations – aptly named “poaching” because it is, in essence, illegal hunting, fishing or harvesting – usually results in punishment. These acts are considered serious disobedience – an insult to the guardians of society (the “geniuses”, the masters of the forests and waters). Sanctions range from work in favour of the community to the payment of ‘fines’ in kind (e.g. the purchase of livestock for the community).

Traditional hunting societies

In Mali, there is an important mythology related to nature, wildlife, which plays a fundamental role in the protection of natural resources. In addition, traditional hunters constitute a brotherhood that obeys strict ethical rules that serve as a means of animal conservation.

This is particularly the case in the Bambara communities of Bélédougou (Kolokani), Peulh of Wassoulou (Yanfolila), Niénendougou (Bougouni), Fouladougou (Kita), Kaarta (Diéma) and Maninka (Kangaba and Bafing). These hierarchical societies of hunters are subject to strict rules of solidarity and discipline. The hunters are even related to deities, and their name ‘Donso’ literally means knowledge (‘Don’) and family (‘So’). To be a Donso is therefore to have supernatural knowledge, to have access to the spiritual life of wild animals and nature.

In these communities, the hunters obey the following hierarchy:

  • The “Donso-Kuntigui” or chief hunter is the oldest and most influential person in terms of authority.
  • The “Donsoba” is a personality of modest character, the master who distinguishes himself from the pupil by the number and variety of game killed and by the sum of personal experience acquired in several fields, notably magic, astrology, tradi-therapy. He holds secrets never contested by society.
  • The “Donso dewn” is the disciplined pupil who follows the master in all his travels in nature.

Apprentice hunters must follow a rite of initiation. Each pupil is entrusted to a master, who teaches him/her the ways of behaving in society, and especially in relation to the article world. On the day of initiation (“Dankun Son”), a ritual sacrifice (of an animal or plant, such as red cola, red rooster or millet flour) is often performed. During these ceremonies, usually at the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season, the participants implore the Lord’s graces and the forgiveness of the nature gods – in this way the hunters maintain a strong bond with the natural elements and respect for the resources they use.

Traditional protection of elephants

In Africa, the elephant is an emblematic species that is of paramount importance in traditions and in the collective spirit. In Mali, its protection is not only rooted in ancestral traditions, but also in the country’s majority religion, Islam. Thus, the pachyderm is expressly mentioned in the Koran (Sura 105, Al-Fil). 

Traditionally, fauna occupies a privileged place in the socio-cultural life of rural communities, often taking the form of “taboos” or “totems”. Certain animals, the “taboos” are removed from all forms of hunting. In some Malian villages, communities have an obligation to protect certain wild animals for various reasons (because an individual of the species would have saved an ancestor from a natural disaster, for example, or the village from famine, or from attacks by enemies).

In general, the hunting fraternity gives a prominent place to the elephant, an animal that is essentially considered mystical and therefore culturally protected. The slaughter of elephants is reserved only for the great chiefs and master hunters (“Donso Kuntigui” or “Donsoba”).

Some ethnic groups, who consider the elephant as their “totem” or fear reprisals from the elephants because of their powers or their protection by the geniuses of the bush, even completely prohibit the hunting of this animal. Such is the case of the families “SAMAKE” (patronymic which literally means “bull elephant”), TOURE (“elephant” among the Sarakolé, a family name very widespread in West Africa in general, moreover).

The elephant, like other symbolic species, is therefore protected by traditional beliefs and practices in Mali. The mystical character of this animal, coupled with an ancestral desire to preserve natural resources in order to be able to continue to use them in a sustainable manner in the long term, gives the elephant a special status in Malian communities.

This ancestral will to protect the African elephant in Mali is now codified in the country’s formal legislation: the elephant is thus considered a fully protected species, and its hunting is therefore in principle prohibited.

Colonel-Major Bourama Niagate (retired) is an ambassador for the African Elephant Coalition.

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