How to avoid the sixth extinction

Since independence, Botswana has relied on its natural resources. But to secure its future, it needs to turn to its cultural heritage too.

Ngamiland East, Botswana

“I cannot entirely say that totems have helped in our ecosystem and biodiversity conservation,” says Kgosi Kgari Sechele III, when I ask him about the connections between spiritual beliefs and his country’s globally recognized ecological wealth. Sechele III is a chief who is the direct descendant of one of Botswana’s founders, Sechele I, who was renowned as a brave warrior of the Tswana-Boer Wars of 1852-1853. His great-grandfather defended his people and other Tswana communities against encroaching Boer settlers who sought slave labor, cattle, and more land. Indeed, not only is Sechele I remembered for providing refuge from settler violence, but he is also a unifying force that laid the groundwork for the future nation of Botswana.

Sechele III may not be fighting Boer settlers or uniting different Tswana groups, but he is playing a vital role in preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity of the land that his great-grandfather fought for—a pressing task of the present. “What I believe is that our culture as a whole, not just totems, has helped in the preservation of natural resources,” Sechele III says, “and [it] is probably helping in the fight against climate change in ways that we are not aware of, as culture does not really know that there is climate change.” 

As Paramount Chief of the Bakwena people, Sechele III’s roles today are multiple, especially when it involves environmental stewardship. Primary among them, he announces the annual start of the plowing season. Traditionally, this proclamation is attended by reminders and recommendations regarding what trees should not be cut down and what animals should not be killed that season. These cultural taboos, as Sechele III stresses, give forests time to regenerate and animal populations time to recover and grow. In his view, such taboos and other cultural totems have become a force to be reckoned with in Botswana’s conservation efforts.

Michael Nkuba, a research scholar at the Okavango Research Institute (ORI), concurs that totems have contributed greatly to ecosystem and biodiversity conservation:

Totems were strongly linked to people’s identities. Hence, the elders made sure that the animals their clans or tribes identified with were well-protected so that future generations would find them in existence. Totems had to be something that children could see and touch in order for them to truly understand their pedigree.

Such animals were actively conserved as a result. Plants, sacred objects, and other symbols have, of course, served as cultural emblems among a range of communities and societies around the world. The specific link to animals among  Batswana emanates from the lifesaving roles animals have played in varied wars over time. Their admirable attributes have included strength, speed, intelligence, survival skills, and resilience, even in droughts.

The Bagwato clan, for example, has the duiker— a small antelope—as their totem. This custom is due to the lore that the animal once rescued their chief, Khama, from advancing Bakwena forces, who had almost surrounded him after he defied his brother, Kgosi Kgari Sechele I of the Bakwena, in a challenge to be the chief. A duiker is said to have distracted the fighters, thus buying Khama time to escape. 

On the other hand, the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela revere the monkey for a different set of historical reasons. When they found themselves trapped between an enemy and an uncrossable river during the Mfecane Wars of 1818–1840, in which King Shaka Zulu’s army defeated many of their allies, they saw a monkey crossing the river using a tree-like makeshift bridge. They followed its lead to escape and have revered the monkey ever since. Such rich stories illustrate Nkuba’s argument, compelling local ethnic communities to protect the animals they identify with. 

“Growing up, I was not allowed to eat the duiker’s meat. If I did, I was told I would get very sick and die,” says Tshepo Phokoje, a wildlife photographer based in Maun, a tourism hub in Botswana. Though she has photographed countless species of animals, Phokoje says she has never actually seen a duiker. 

Regardless, Phokoje believes totems to be valuable cultural reference points and sources of identity, without which many wild animals and birds would have gone extinct. Indeed, given the sixth mass extinction that scientists agree is currently happening as animal populations and entire species are declining, vanishing faster than they are replaced, such local customary totems remain a crucial strategy for environmental conservation in the foreseeable future.

Though nearly half of the Earth’s animal species are now in decline—entirely caused by human factors such as overfishing, pollution, and land acquisition for farming—Phokoje credits these totems for sustaining her photographic career. “The culture of totems is benefiting Vixen Photography today in that it has given me access to the rich biodiversity that we find in the wild,” she comments, citing the name of her business. 

Botswana’s ecosystems and biodiversity have not benefited Phokoje alone. A recent study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), which tracks the status and livelihoods of Okavango Delta-dependent communities, suggests that the ecologically rich delta has brought many tourists and their spending power to Botswana, and northern Botswana particularly. The report highlights how the travel and tourism industry accounted for approximately 30,700 jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic. The sector significantly contributed to the country’s GDP, with a share of 13.1% in 2019—following an average annual growth rate of 4.7%. The recurring frequency of drought, however, has threatened the industry’s longstanding role in poverty eradication and development—another way environmental change is negatively impacting the region.

Nonetheless, despite the instability of climate change, totems have given photographers like Phokoje something to fight for, and with:

We are able to capture images which are used in raising awareness of what nature possesses. The images also highlight issues relating to the coexistence between humans and wildlife, as well as the impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Another reason why totems have endured over time is that they are integral to African spirituality through local religious traditions established long before the arrival of Christianity on the continent. 

Michael Nkuba argues that humans are spiritual beings with a natural propensity to worship. For example, many Africans believe in the continued existence of ancestors in the afterlife, with the living often dreaming of the dead, who instruct them to do certain things and perform certain duties. 

“If I am from the buffalo clan, the dead who will speak to me in my dreams, my ancestors, will of course be of the buffalo clan,” Nkuba offers as an example. As sources of spiritual power, totems have been used in healing practices, and with the introduction of newborn babies into society, among other rituals. When Christian missionaries began arriving during the 19th century, they quickly encountered the enduring power of such totems. Indigenous San communities additionally had their own spiritual connections with animals and the environment. 

“In San traditions, we do not have totems,” says Job Morris, Founder and Executive Director of the San Youth Network (SYNet), an organization whose vision is to create an environment where all San youth in Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia thrive:  

In many history books, this aspect of our culture has been clouded by the Bantu traditions as we are considered a minority. The only San groups who subscribe to given totems are those that have been assimilated. You can find these assimilated San groups in the Northern and Eastern parts of Botswana. 

Despite the absence of totems among San communities that did not intermarry or assimilate, the San remain significant participants in Botswana’s biodiversity conservation. Gcwihaba Caves and the Tsodilo Hills, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites popular for their vast array of rock art, are viewed as evidence of how the San have respected and co-existed with nature. Morris explains:

Though it was hunted and eaten, the eland, for one, was considered a very sacred animal. Since it was a scarce animal, spotting it was viewed as a sign of abundance, that there is going to be more food to gather … San tribes have an eland song that they dedicate to the girl child when she reaches puberty. Only women sing and dance to that song, celebrating womanhood and reproduction.”

For San people like Morris, conservation has long been a way of life. When harvesting natural plants, San hunter-gatherers were known to re-plant the vegetation they collected. Such long-held customary practices have translated into present-day ideas of environmental conservation and the maintenance of natural resources. 

These local beliefs have faced challenges, however. Postcolonial economic development, the threat of climate change, and the ambitions of policymakers and scientists to ensure that the world achieves the four dimensions of sustainable development—social, environment, economic and good governance—by 2030 together have introduced new challenges as well as new ways of thinking about conservation, anchored in the science of ecology. For example, scholars such as Dr. Olekae Thakadu, a professor at the Okavango Research Institute (ORI), and theologians such as Dr. Joseph Gaie, a professor of religious studies at the University of Botswana, have argued that science and Christianity have side-lined African practices to the detriment of local ecosystems and biodiversity. Morris agrees:

I am a Christian; I exercise my freedom of association in this way. I, however, strongly believe that there is a spiritual dimension to San dance, music and art. You see that in the rock paintings but trying to balance this spirituality and Christian religion always proves problematic … Christianity undermines the way other people have always conducted their lives. What you take from your traditional beliefs that does not clash with Christianity depends on you as an individual. 

As an indigenous climate activist, Morris believes it is imperative to adopt and integrate all solutions that can work, including indigenous knowledge systems. Such a holistic approach is essential at a time when the world has limited resources and a global population that is nearly  9 billion.  

There is a need to predict and assess disasters by studying animals and plants. By observing what changed over the past five years, we can predict what will happen next. For example, as the San people, we know that it will rain only when we see rain birds. 

The presence and absence of certain plants also foretell disasters. Hence, Morris calls  for a sense of unity between Western science, indigenous knowledge systems, and the local San culture. Through this integrated approach, he believes humanity will have a winning chance—saving itself by evading the sixth mass extinction.  

“Bear in mind that climate change is not a fresh phenomenon, it was detected many years ago,” he stresses. “Yet indigenous peoples have survived it all these years and have had an abundance of natural resources.”

As an example of what Morris sees as an unbalanced approach, government conservation policies, such as the hunting ban, did not benefit the environment and indigenous people: 

They have done nothing but criminalize our traditional way of life. Now when people find a chance to hunt, they go and kill many animals without discrimination, as they think they may never get a chance again if arrested. People hunted responsibly under the dictates of culture. 

While the 2014-2019 hunting ban fundamentally upended and criminalized the game-meat culture and economy of many San groups, especially in the western Kalahari region, a study by Annette LaRocco suggests that the post-ban situation offers much the same. Local communities still have a preference, largely ignored by policymakers, for game-meat consumption. This impasse, LaRocco argues, reflects the consensus of a small governing elite that have determined conceptions of development and natural resource use.

Morris also notes how elite development practices have forced his people to abandon their nomadic ways of life. Because of this change, his village of D’Kar has been experiencing population growth with an influx of people relocating to the village. This situation is straining the limited resources they have access to, while modern livestock rearing and crop farming, which are not favored by the San, have led to soil erosion, land degradation, and are ultimately unsustainable, being both seasonal and highly dependent on Botswana’s unpredictable rains. 

“These policies have crippled the San people. They have turned a people once highly independent into destitutes reliant on government handouts,” Morris remarks. “This is very painful. More especially that climate change is worsening the situation, and the people don’t even know how to go about adapting.” 

Though the San do not have totems, their role in biodiversity conservation cannot be denied, in the same way that totems in natural resource preservation should not be overlooked. Such cultural practices have continued despite threats by modern science, Christianity, globalization, and development.

“People tend to choose agreeable attributes; they did not completely abandon totems. Totems are still recognized to date, and people’s identities are still linked to them,” says Michael Nkuba. He called on Botswana’s Ministry of the Environment to take advantage of the culture of totems in their conservation campaigns. Such an undertaking he believes will resonate with many who will take pride in conserving the species they are linked to. Such campaigns, he said, will also provoke the curiosity of many beyond Botswana’s borders, thereby raising continental awareness. 

“By championing this, people, especially the youth, will know that culture in general and totems especially, are not necessarily evil or backward,” he explains. “So why not give the elderly a platform to speak on the importance of these systems, why not make them tourism ambassadors who can share knowledge about buffaloes from a totem perspective?”  

A case study on the role of traditional ecological knowledge in natural resources management undertaken in village communities in the eastern part of Botswana by Mphemelang Ketlhoilwe and Koketso Jeremiah support Nkuba’s views. Published in 2016, the study found that local ecological knowledge is still valued, especially by rural people, who use it to enhance their well-being and protect biodiversity. The study’s respondents also felt that local knowledge was equally valuable to modern scientific knowledge and that it should be legislated and taught in schools to prevent its disappearance. Overall, traditional ecological knowledge has gained new value and modern purpose. 

For young mothers like Tshepo Phokoje, the idea of primary school education on the value of totems would be a welcome development. “We also need more workshops and programs in schools from lower levels that create a conducive environment for conversations about conservation and climate change because children are the future,” she concludes. 

Introducing such programs in schools will end the division that Kgosi Kgari Sechele III says is apparent between children who are brought up in households that uphold the culture of totems and those that do not.

What Nkuba wants everyone to realize is the vantage point from which local policy makers can view the totem culture. “Culture can further contribute to ecosystems and biodiversity conversation,” he explains. “The resulting cultural heritage can translate to tourism, and tourism to increased GDP.” 

Nkuba’s arguments ultimately point to the past, present, and future together. Botswana’s postcolonial development has been anchored in its natural resources, including its flora, fauna, and diamonds. This situation remains true. For Botswana to secure its future, it will need to continue to rely on its natural and ecological heritage, but equally its cultural heritage. 

Further Reading