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African Traditional Symbolism and Biodiversity Conservation


Owing to cultural and religious associations, a large number of wild animal and plant species are considered sacred and may not be killed, eaten or even touched since they are regarded as symbols of an existing intimate, unseen relationship. Such animals are regarded as sacred either because they saved the ancestors of the particular clan or group during the inter-tribal wars or the animals are believed to have the same ancestry as the people (Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1987). The Ondo people in the Ondo State of Nigeria do not eat Cricetomys gambianus (Giant rat) because of the belief of assistance of the animal during the inter tribal wars and migration (Ola-Adams, 1998). Among the Akan people of Ghana the "Bretuo" and the "Agona" clans have the leopard, Panthera pardus and the African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus respectively as their spiritual symbols. See Figure 1 for a list of the clans of the Akans of Ghana, their symbols and their attributes.

List of clans of the Akans of Ghana, their symbols and attributes (Source: K. A. Opoku, 1993).

Oyoko Osansa (Hawk, Falcon) Patience
Aduana Okraman (Dog) Adroitness, skilful and adept under pressing conditions
Asona Kwaakwaadabi (Crow) Wisdom
Ekoona Ekoo (Buffalo) Conscientiousness, thorough and painstaking, scrupulous
Asenee Ampan (Bat) Diplomacy, skill in dealing with people.
Bretuo Osebo (Leopard) Tenacity, aggressiveness
Asakyiri Okore (Eagle) Vigilance
Agona Akoo (Parrot) Eloquence


Animals in a particular habitat may be regarded as sacred and are therefore protected from hunting. Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1987 gave an example of black and white colobus (Colobus polykomos) and Mona monkey (Cercopithecus mona) and their habitat, which were protected by local beliefs and traditions in Boabeng and Fiema villages in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana. The area has become a sanctuary not only for these animals but also provide safety for other monkeys such as spot-nosed (Cercopithecus ipetuarista) and dioma (Cercopithecus diana).

Tabooed species are animals and plants regarded as sacred because of some protection or guidance or help accorded to the ancestors or species regarded as unclean and abhorred because of some misfortune. Sacrificial or ceremonial species, on the other hand, are those species used in specific rites and festivals. Such species were revered by members of particular States/Traditional Councils and/or clans and were protected (Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1987). In some cases they were used as symbols/emblems of some traditional states or coucils. See Plates 1 to 9 below for the emblems of some States/Traditional Councils.

Plate 1 Plate 2 Plate 3
Plate 4 Plate 5 Plate 6
Plate 7 Plate 8 Plate 9

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