The government’s decision to auction off elephants has excited passions among animal-rights activists in the west. As far as this group of people is concerned, the government of Botswana has no right to kill what some of them describe as “beautiful and intelligent animals.” They had hoped to force the government to reverse its plans to lift a hunting ban that was imposed by the previous administration of General Ian Khama but failed. Beautiful and intelligent though they may be, elephants are also wreaking havoc in the northern part of the country, particularly Ngamiland. Just this past week in parliament, the Okavango MP, Kenny Kapinga, asked the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Phildah Kereng, whether her ministry “has of recent undertaken a survey to assess the environmental degradation emanating from the excessive elephant population.” Not only do elephants degrade the environment, they also kill people – something animal-rights activists don’t even want to talk about.
The irony of westerners accusing Botswana of preying on wild animals is that they are the biggest preys in human history. Viewed that way, their complaint is really not about the lifting of the hunting ban and preying on wildlife but about them not being ones who are doing the preying. If there was a way they could patent preying (and patent is a western invention), they would.
The irony of this whole issue is that for people making a rights-based argument, westerners are denying Batswana the cultural rights they have exercised over wildlife for centuries. To them hunting wild animals is a savage act but historically, hunting has always been part of cultural practice among Batswana.
Leopard conservation groups don’t want leopards to be killed but in Setswana culture, the installation of a new traditional leader (kgosi) would be incomplete without a ceremony where s/he is invested with a skin of freshly killed leopard. The skin is the prize of the hunt but there is another more important dimension. Tracking, cornering and killing the leopard test the martial skills that society expects its men (especially the kgosi) to have. In the olden days, initiation training for boys entailed tribal hunt for the fearsome black rhinoceros to test the mettle of initiates.
The busybody nature of western animal-rights activists necessarily mean that we may be looking at a future when we have to deal with conservation groups that seek to save pythons. The reality though is that across most indigenous cultures in Botswana, traditional doctors use fat from these reptiles to concoct potions that can be used in a variety of ways. Had western animal-rights activists started plying their trade in what is now Botswana hundreds of years ago, Batswana would probably have developed traditional doctoring methods that don’t involve the use of pythons but we have only just met these busybodies.
Through hunting, societies across the world have built a corpus of indigenous knowledge that they use in various ways. As the experience of Namibian Bushmen hunters with the apartheid-era South African Defence Force shows, tracking the spoor of wild animals has use in the enterprise of war – and law enforcement in another context. There are also special ways to prepare certain meat dishes from wild animals – like the pit-cooking of a porcupine among Batswana. These knowledge needs hunting to survive.
As the battle over hunting is amped up, most Batswana – especially those who are victims of out-of-control elephants – have sided with the government. Online, some of this patriotism has been harnessed into outright Internet gangsterism which is ultimately not helpful to Botswana’s case. Sadly, the cultural argument for hunting can also be used against the Botswana government. In the past, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks denied an incoming kgosi a licence to hunt a leopard and he had to settle for skin lent to him by the Department. The most egregious overreach though is with regard to how the government has denied the Bushmen their cultural rights to use wildlife in the same way they have for thousands of years.
Upon conviction that it had stumbled into a goldmine of diamonds in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve, De Beers worked behind the scenes to have communities that lived in the reserve relocated. These communities fiercely resisted and with the heroic campaign of Survival International, a London-based pressure group, won residency rights at the High Court. While back at the CKGR, those communities don’t have hunting rights, which rights are interwoven with their way of life.
It has been reported that the bodies of Bushmen boys at government schools started twitching, itching and swelling when the hunting season starts. A possible explanation is that ancestors wanted them to be in the bush hunting than in a classroom learning about foreign cultures. The Bushmen have also developed a unique type of religious dances that re-enact hunting experiences. They use these dances to communicate with their Ancestral Spirits – or Gods.
It has also emerged that over centuries, the Bushmen have developed a highly sophisticated hunting language that a scholar from a French university associated with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris came to Botswana to study and write about. Philip Hindley, a researcher from the Museum, visited Bushmen communities in the Ngamiland and Ghanzi districts of Northwest Botswana to study acommunication system that they have used in tracking and hunting wildlife for centuries. Back in Paris, Hindley did a linguistic analysis of this system, in one respect constructing “a taxonomic lexicon of nominal iconic gestures that depict animals.” Not all language is verbal and Hindley’s focus was on audio and gestural means of communication that the men use during hunting. This highly sophisticated system is used communicate information to fellow hunters in order to coordinate hunts and indicate the identity of the spoor, the prey species, or the predator that has been spotted. He found that while Bushmen hunters sometimes use whistles, clicks and bird-like chatter to command attention for colleagues out of visual range, their communication is mainly gestural. Nominal iconic hand gestures are used to communicate the identity of the game by reproducing salient features, such as horns, tusks, ears, and tails. If the Bushmen can’t hunt, they will see no need to retain this centuries-old language.
Viewed from this perspective, the battle over hunting shows that westerners are merely opening up another battle front in the culture war. That war began when they invalidated ancestor worship and tricked Batswana into adopting an alien religion. Ever since, they have been invalidating other indigenous cultural practices in a variety of ways. For example, western employers have given Batswana employees English names; Customary Law has been replaced by Roman-Dutch law; English has displaced indigenous languages; and the skin-lightening cream industry thrives on the back of racist lie that black is ugly. On the basis of the latter, it was inevitable that the west would reject wildlife management practices that an African government chose for itself. The subtext is your culture is backward. Against this background, one can legitimately to wonder if animal-rights activists would still insist on the hunting ban if elephants started killing western tourists in really large numbers. The amount of outrage about the hanging of Marietta Bosch, the only white woman to have suffered such fate in Botswana, showed how much the west values white life.