‘An elephant does not die from one broken rib’: The African elephant in African environmental consciousness

I would like to begin with a story. As in most of African performance and orature, the story teller invites the audience to participate in the transformational and collective experience.

Story teller: Ugeni “ĩtha” ndimũganire! Say “Itha” so that I tell you a story.

Audience response: ĩtha!

A long, long time ago, there a mother, father, and two children. One day, they went to cultivate in the forest and when it was dusk, they went back home. On reaching home, they realized that they had left Ngoi ya mwana/baby carrier, so they sent the girl to go fetch it. On her way to the shamba[1], the girl met with an elephant. The elephant asked, “where are you going little girl?” The girl replied by way of song: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ/ our baby’s carrier. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant let her pass. She continued and met the second elephant. The elephant asked her “where are you going all by yourself?” And the girl responded: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant obliged, and on she went. After a while she came across a third elephant. The elephant blew his trumpet and asked, “where do you think you are going, little girl?” And the girl sang: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant hesitated for a while, but let the girl pass and on she went. She walked very fast now. It was getting late. Just as she was about to reach the shamba, she met the fourth elephant. She was getting exasperated by these elephants. And the elephant asked, “where are you going little girl?” And the girl sang: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” This elephant did not let her pass. It, instead, hoisted her high up with his trunk and hid her in his armpit. It now was getting dark and the family was worried about their daughter. The father decided to go and look for her. On his way, the father met the first elephant and asked. Have you seen my Wanjiru? The elephant answered by way of song: “I am not the one who ate her but the one behind me.” He met the second and third elephants and the same exchange transpired. When he met the fourth one and asked the same question, the elephant said, “I am the one who ate her. You can do whatever you wish.” The father killed the elephant, rescued his daughter, and they went to collect the Ngoi. That is the end of my story[2].

African orature[3] is packed with wildlife, including elephants which are one of the most prominent and charismatic species on the continent. This story is derived from the Agikũyũ people of Kenya. It transports us to a world where elephants and human beings exist in the same realm. In this story, the elephants are not in a fenced off in a pristine wilderness, known as a ‘National Park’, ‘Reserve ‘ or ‘Conservancy’. They are players in the large dance of life.  There is an interaction and a tapestry of relationships radiating from both human and no-human characters. In many African philosophies, animals are considered participants in the ecosystem, and with human characteristics.  Stories demonstrate a direct link between the human and non-human world. This story is set in a world in which elephants speak. This is a clear demonstration of the Gĩkũyũ indigenous environmental thought in which humans were not seen as separate from nature, but a holistic whole; each of the different players in the scene had to be respectful of the other in order to cultivate harmony. The story also contextualizes the reality that at certain points humans and elephants were in conflict.  In Gĩkũyũ culture, stories were narrated around the fire place as children waited for food to be ready. Storytelling made the fire-place, food, and cooking the lifeblood of the community’s understanding of the landscape, and their role in it. This was in the happier times, before the encounter with colonialism, and subsequent neo-colonial encirclement, through amongst others, ‘Green missionaries’.

In addition to location of human beings in their environmental contexts, stories in African traditions served the important purpose of social repair, social organization, carriers of memory, and storehouses of knowledge. Among the Acoli of Uganda stories including those that incorporate animal characters have been instrumental in cultivating social repair after decades of war and violence. These stories also document change in landscape in that area, including how elephants were hunted to extinction.  Lara Rossenoff writes that “While gathering firewood, I even heard a story about the last elephant shot in the area (in the 1950s). Due to the proliferation of arms when Acoli soldiers from England’s King African Rifles Regiment returned home from the Second World War, big game was quickly hunted out.”[4] Stories also served a purposed of giving African a sense of time. In many cases stories began with locating the listeners in time by use of phrases such as “long, long time ago…”  This has the effect of entrenching the belief that the past is linked to the present, that history is important, and being ahistorical was incongruent with African indigenous environmental thought. Wildlife featured prominently in ceremonies, folklore and other cultural activities.  The elephant signifies power and strength. This is well articulated by the work of Uganda Scholar and poet Okot P’ Bitek who lyricizes it as follows:

I am an insect

Trapped between the toes

Of a bull elephant,

I am an earthworm

I am gravel in the mud

I am the wet dung

Of a chicken on the floor!

One of living symbolic metaphorical display of the power of the elephant and its centrality in African environmental consciousness is during the Kuomboka[5] ceremony in Barotseland, western Zambia. During this time, the upper Zambezi floods, and the Litunga/King of the Lozi[6] people moves to from the lower flood plain to upper ground. The over two centuries-old[7] ceremony is led by the Litunga who emerges in into the flood waters in barge/Nalikwanda which is paddled by at least 60 warriors[8], amidst pomp and ululation. Displayed prominently on the Nalikwanda, is a 3 dimensional carving of an elephant. The elephant “signifies the power of the Litunga as in the most powerful and biggest land traversing mammal. It implies that the Litunga is most powerful, and others are definitively smaller and less powerful.”[9] A designated person manipulates the elephant’s ears, so that they keep flapping as the barge moves through the waters, bringing the elephant to life. In addition a fire is lit and the smoke rises up to signify that the Litunga is a live, that the people are alive, that the culture is alive.  Other barges are not to precede the Litunga’s; they are expected to follow the Litunga, who represents leadership in the transformative event of environmental stewardship, survival, tradition, environmental consciousness,  and power over natural forces – a  dynamic performance of African heritage at the its very peak, which mainly attracts African spectators.[10]

The use of the elephant in the Koumboka ceremony also a testament of the Lozi peoples’ connections with the elephant which are still found in Sioma Ngwezi National park in Barotseland.  Another illustration of the power and potency of the elephant is seen in the staffs of the king among the Akan of Ghana. These symbols proclaim the history and power of families and leaders, and defines qualities of good rulers. Elephants are a symbol that is used in the staff of the okeyeame or linguist. This royal spokesperson accompanies the clan chief on public occasions, repeating the chief’s words and making them “sweet” by embellishing them with proverbs.  According to the Asante peoples’ philosophy, the elephant is the greatest animal in the animal kingdom just as the Asantehene/King is the greatest in Asante[11]. The use of these emblems is a testament that Africans have always been in touch with their environments and landscapes. They do not consider them to be divorced from the fauna that roams their landscapes. They are the ultimate conservation metaphor.

Akan Linguist staff
Image source: Google Arts and Culture

Going further back in time, we find elephants manifested in African rock art in the form of paintings and engravings on stone. These creatures have captured the imagination of Africans for as long as they have inhabited the planet. Elephant images are found in rock art sites all over Africa. Rock art images are believed to be a manifestations of African spirituality and philosophy. These sites are arenas of interpretation of life and the environment in which the artists inhabited. Elephant images in the Sahara Desert are an environmental record or text documenting the fact the Sahara was a much wetter in the past. Rock art images of elephants are about natural intelligence and learning about nature. The wide depiction of African elephants in rock art images also informs us of the widespread distribution of elephants on the continent.  Most of these megafauna are believed to be associated with harnessing of spiritual powers to navigate life and environmental challenges. In some of these cases you find depictions of therianthropes, figures that combine both animal and human features. In African rock art these combined images primarily incorporated antelope, but occasionally, with baboon, elephant (emphasis added), bird or fish features[12]. Rock art research and studies (mainly in southern Africa) have associated these images with transitions into trance/altered states of consciousness among the San, to whom the art work is attributed. The trance dance is the entry point into the supernatural world, which then informs the artistic and ritualistic images on rock surfaces. This happens as follows:

 When Kalahari shamans dance, they say that animals are attracted to the place; they stand out in the darkness just beyond the firelight, spirit animals, but no less real. They can only be seen by shamans, who draw each other’s attention to them so that they can pool their visions and power. If people are dancing elephant potency, elephants come; if they dance eland potency, eland, the most powerful of all animals, approach. [13]

These images of power are then transferred into rock surfaces. The rock itself is a living medium imbued with its own potency; the paint is made of animal, plant, and other earth-derived substances, and serves the purpose of bringing the supernatural to life in a metaphysical encapsulation. Some of art depicts elephant figures being hunted by a large group of men.  There are, however, numerous examples of painted and engraved elephant figures sometimes shown being hunted by a large party of men.  Elephants are also believed to be associated with rain-making rituals[14]. Thus, it can be argued that the African elephant is tied to African spirituality in numerous ways and it has been so since the beginning of time. Contemporary conservation practices of naming elephants after human beings e.g., Tim and other such-like names, as well as feeding them with carrots, and ultimately turning them into pets to be petted by tourists do not get to the spiritual depths of African conservation philosophy and environmental thought.

Rock paintings of elephants and people in Cederberg, South Africa – estimated at between 2,000 and 6,000 years old. Source: Henry B/Pintrest

The African elephant also feature prominently in totems and other forms of social organization and control in Africa.  A fascinating example comes from the Samburu people of Kenya who perceive elephants as “moral beings capable of hurting and being hurt.”[15] Samburu oral legend comprises of a story that demonstrates the affinity of elephants and human beings. According to Samburu legend, the elephant used to live in the Samburu village and was a servant of women. Thus, the elephant performed women’s duties such as collecting firewood. This close interaction led to an altercation between a woman and elephant about the amount of firewood that the elephant was gathering. Consequently, the elephant took offence and stopped living with the Samburu people henceforth. The elephant departed after issuing a warning that the Samburu people must be careful when they pass by elephants. The Samburu woman also warned the elephant that it should do take caution on seeing Samburu people.[16] Like the story of the Agikũyũ people at the opening of this chapter, this story is another demonstration of African environmental thought which conceives wildlife as co-players in the ecosystems, and as beings from with whom they share responsibilities, expectations, emotions, spaces, and metaphysical connections. The elephant remains a central part of the Samburu ecological thought. Indeed, the Samburu people believe that:

There are many similarities between humans and elephants since elephants have a

trunk that acts like a human arm, breasts similar to women, and skin that resembles

human skin. Consequently, certain taboos exist that prohibit the killing or eating of

elephants.[17]

This kind of perception is significantly different from the fetishization of elephants that characterizes the mainstream conservation practices, where elephants are closed off in pens, or fenced in, completely removed from communities who have emotional connections and metaphysical linkages with them.  Samburu clans are structured around wildlife including the elephant. Taboos against the consumption of elephants and other wildlife are not unique to the Samburu. They are found for example among the Ikoma of western Serengeti, Tanzania[18] and the Shona of Zimbabwe.[19]  Hence the arguments that trophy hunting is good because it provides ‘starving African villagers’ with meat from amongst others, elephants is not only insulting, but morally, philosophically and intellectually bankrupt. The power of the elephant is enshrined not only in its complete self, but in its constituent parts. In the following passage Okot p’ Bitek shines light on the contradictions between imported cultural/religious practices through the lens of the elephant:

My husband wears

A small crucifix

On his neck,

And all his daughters wear rosaries

But he prohibits me

From wearing the elephant tail necklace

The elephant’s tail metaphor above illustrates the dislocation of cultural practices that connected Africans to their environmental settings. The crucifix and rosary link the African with other deities far removed from their landscapes, and ultimately strangles the knowledge systems, environmental consciousness, and ways of being associated with elephants and their shared landscapes. This act of tearing a society apart or dismembering it can be an entry point into understanding environmental destruction such as wildlife habitats. Why should one be so concerned with elephants and their habitats if their “salvation” lies in the crucifix and rosary? Some communities such as the Samburu have retained cultural practices tied to elephants. For instance, elephant dung is burnt during wedding ceremonies in homes of the newlyweds. The smoke emanating from the burning dung is believed to be blessing, which sends them good wishes as they start their new homes. In addition, dung is also used as a mosquito repellant[20]. Finally, among the Samburu, respect for elephants extends to death as they cover dead elephant carcass with branches.[21] These examples outlined above outline the power encoded in communities and their understanding of their environments and or landscapes. This kind of knowledge or connections with wildlife is rarely tapped by conservationists who are embedded in the pristine wildneress and appendages of the wilderness/wild Africa conceptualizations of conservation. In addition, it made to appear like the only reason why wildlife should be conserved is either for trophy hunters (who will shoot them with their guns) or for tourists (who will shoot them with their cameras).  Communities are at the periphery of the conservation industry as bead makers and dancers, or eating carcasses, which are the by-products of trophy-hunter exploits when they should be taking the centre-stage in shaping policy- as informed by their knowledge systems.

Did Africans make use of elephants beyond just having spiritual attachments to them?  Yes, they did.  Research conducted in southern Africa shows that people in the region were “obtaining ivory from a range of environments, and probably exporting it via Indian Ocean trade routes” by the 7th Century.[22]  Further, ivory trading was taking place in the east African coast by the first millennium AD. [23] Some of the ivory-derived objects emerging from archaeological excavations in southern Africa include ivory bangles or armlets, pointing to domestic usages of ivory as an adornment. [24] Historical records show that in other parts of Africa:

 Whole tusks were brought in as tribute to chiefs from vassals and clients, and ivory was used for personal adornment in an ostentatious display of wealth. More importantly for economic prosperity and political authority, ivory was exchanged for iron and other useful metals that contributed to improved methods of cultivation, as well as for cloth, beads and other goods – in later centuries, firearms and liquor.[25]

 Ivory, has over the course of time, altered relationships between African societies, as well as outsiders.  Access to and control of ivory trade presented opportunities for consolidation of power and wealth of African leaders, and enabled Africans to lay the foundation of societal structures anchored on hierarchy and class[26]. The ‘Ivory Coast’ and the Kingdoms of Asante and Ghana were, for example, founded on the wealth accrued through ivory, along with gold. [27] The rise and fall of southern African kingdoms of Mapungubwe (900-1300AD) and Great Zimbabwe (1100-1450AD) can also be related (in part), with trade in ivory between the two kingdoms, via the east African coast to India and China. [28] Hunting was practiced among all pre-colonial societies in Kenya. This includes farmers and pastoralists, who are believed to not have practiced hunting. Among farming communities for instance:

Hunting for food was a significant element in their economic activity, providing important protein supplements to the otherwise heavily starchy diet. However, food was only one of the reasons farmers hunted. In defence of crops, property or life, many animals from bush pigs and duiker to lion, leopard and elephants were frequently chased from fields and hunted in the bush. In pursuit of wealth and status large game and small were hunted for skins, horns, and other trophies. Tusks, teeth, horn, and hides were used in clothing, medicine and ritual or traded with other items of value. [29]

Elephants, in particular, were therefore valued for a variety of purposes. Their meat was consumed or traded, the skin was used to cover shields and drums, the tendons used as thread, and the bones were carved into a variety of tools or for ritualistic purposes. [30] Through the elephant we see Africans navigating space, solidifying identities, pursuing economic and spiritual goals, living life in all its complexity. To finish, I will return to African orature and share a story that was narrated to me by a Gĩkũyũ elder. As highlighted earlier, African orality was the lens through which teachings were transmitted in African societies.  They were avenues through which people’s consciousness was raised. Several lessons can be derived from this story, including those that help establish more just conservation regimes.

One day, the hare told an elephant that “even if you, elephant, are so big, you cannot pull me.” “I cannot pull you?” wondered the elephant. Hare replied, “no you can’t!” Then the elephant said, “okay, then let us agree on when we can pull each other so that we eliminate any doubt.” The hare said, “let us pull each other on that mountain a week from today.” The hare also went to the hippo and told the hippo that, “hey, hippo even if you are so big you cannot pull me!” The hippo was incensed. The hippo said to the hare, “when can we do that so that we eliminate the doubt?” The hare said, “let us do it a week from now from that mountain over there.” The hippo agreed. So, the day of reckoning came. The hare went to the river, tied the hippo with a chain, and told the hippo, “wait until you hear the sound of the chain from the other side of the mountain and then start pulling.” The hare went to the other side of the mountain and tied the elephant and told the elephant the same. The hare went on top of the mountain and pulled the chain, and the hippo and elephant started pulling each other! They pulled and pulled, and none of them could pull the other. The hare then went to the elephant and said, “now you agree that you cannot pull me.” The elephant agreed. Then, the hare went to the hippo and said, “so you now agree that you cannot pull me, right?” The hippo lowered his head in shame and said, “yes!”

The animals incorporated in this story and their inter-relationships underlines the storytellers acute observations of their surroundings, and their capacity to link animal characteristics to human behaviour and conditions. These animals embody roles which identify with the best or the worst in human behaviour such as cunningness, arrogance, pride, intelligence, cleverness, courage, understanding of complexity, etc. This story celebrates/illuminates the need for justice for the weak and celebration of wit and intelligence. It de-emphasizes size and glamour as the key ingredients for success. When looked at from a the perspective of conservation, this goes against the obsession with the so-called big 5 ( which is derived from trophy hunting narratives) and not looking at ecosystems in a holistic fashion that is comprised of hares and crickets! I began with a proverb ‘an elephant does not die from one broken rib’. I would like to end with another proverb –the elephant does not get tired of its tusks. I invite the reader to reflect on what these two proverbs mean for the practice of conservation in Africa today.


[1] A cultivated piece of land.

[2]  Investigating People-Forest Relationships: Understanding their sustainability through Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Kendi Borona, Doctoral Dissertation (2017)

[3] This includes stories, proverbs, sayings, metaphors, songs and other forms of cultural expressions.

[4] Lara Roseneff Gauvin, In and Out of Culture: Okot p’Bitek’s Work and Social repair in Post-Conflict Acoliland’  Oral Tradition, 28/1 (2013): 35-54

[5] Kuomboka means ‘to get out of the water’

[6] Lozi people are found in three countries– Zambia, Namibia, and Angola, a situation arising out of colonialism.

[7] UNESCO: https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5428/

[8] Lawrence Flint, Contradictions and Challenges in Representing the Past: The Kuomboka Festival of Western Zambia, Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 32, Number 4, December 2006

[9] Personal communication. Victor Syatooka, Zambian historian.

[10] This sentiment is captured by Lawrence Flint who interviewed an African who argued that “Being here makes me feel like an African. I try to come every few years with my brothers. We don’t think it matters that it is a Lozi king being venerated. This is an African event. I feel like an African here surrounded by my people celebrating the African land and culture. I don’t feel that way in Lusaka [Zambia’s capital] and we have mostly lost these things in my homeland. There is nothing like Kuomboka but I would not come if the whites came with their enormous cameras, their safari shorts and their money. The people here would behave differently both to them and to me.”

[11] Emmanuel Osei Boakye, n.d. Symbols on Asante Linguistic staffs

[12] Lewis Williams & Dowson (1989).  Images of Power: Understanding Bushman art

[13] Lewis Williams & Dowson (1990). Through the veil: San Rock Art paintings and the rock face

[14] Yates & Hall (1985).  Trance Performance: The Rock Art of Boontjieskloof and Sevilla

[15] Onesmas Kahindi. Cultural perceptions of elephants by the Samburu in northern Kenya. 2001. Masters dissertation

[16] This legend is adopted from ‘Linking local perceptions of elephants and conservation: Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya’ 2002 . R. Kuriyan

[17] Kuriyan, 2002

[18] Kidegesho (2009). The potentials of traditional African cultural practices in mitigating overexploitation of wildlife species and habitat loss: experience of Tanzania

[19] Fortune & Hodza (n.d). Shona Praise-Poetry

[20] Kuriyan, 2002

[21] Kuriyan, 2002

[22] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[23] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[24] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[25] Carruthers et al., file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[26] Gordon & Gordon (1996): The elephant in southern Africa: History and Distribution: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[27] Gordon & Gordon (1996): The elephant in southern Africa: History and Distribution: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[28] Carruthers et al., file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf;

[29] Steinhart – Black poachers, white hunters: A social history of hunting in colonial Kenya

[30] Forssman et al., : https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/39858199/

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