Wildlife and African Folklore

© Shem Compion

Many African tribes had a tradition regarding wild creatures. Certain birds and animals were given the status of protected creatures because of their rarity or beauty.

Others were regarded as sacred. Even today there are still categories of royal game or protected species. Although many modern-day Africans grow up without ever laying an eye on animals in the wild, there was a time when certain animals were well-known to them, many being featured in African folklore.

Some of these protected animals were allowed to be killed under certain circumstances or, if they were caught, had to be taken to the local chief. Anyone finding a scaly anteater or pangolin, had to take it to the chief alive; and after satisfying local curiosity, it was killed to provide relish for the food of the chief and his senior wife.

The scales were used for medicinal purposes.Porcupines were also regarded as royal game and any slaughtered animal had to be taken whole to the chief, where the quills were removed and the carcass gutted. The chief would then reward the presenter with a fowl or similar gift. In the case of an ostrich the hunter was presented with a goat, and was allowed to keep the meat, while the chief kept the feathers and any eggs that were found.

Elephant and eland were also protected game, and if any were killed, the local chief would be informed. Either the chief or a deputy then had to be present when the animal was skinned. The chief got the heart, the surrounding fat and certain other parts, while the hunter could keep the rest.In the case of a lion or leopard, the hides automatically became the chief's property, but the hunter was treated as a hero for killing the fearsome animal with the primitive weapons of the time.

After taking the skin and the hairball found in the stomachs of some of these animals to the chief, the hunter was treated to a drink of beer and presented with an ox which he could either slaughter on the spot or drive home to his kraal. The chief valued the hairballs, believing that they would give him power to roar or frighten his subjects.

Crocodiles were not often killed. They were believed to be associated with some witch or wizard. If a killing was made, the chief or delegated headman had to be present. The 'stone' found near the gall bladder was prized by the chief as a charm. It was believed to confer long life if it was swallowed. The crocodile carcass had to be thrown back into the water. Failing this, drought was believed to ensue. From Custos, December 1991

Learn more about African Culture

By Richard C Haw

Kruger National Park - South African Safari